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Lapid visits Turkey amid Iranian terror cell arrested

What happened: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Turkey yesterday and met his counterpart Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

  • The visit coincided with the Turkish announcement that they had arrested eight suspects believed to be part of an Iranian intelligence cell that was planning to kidnap Israeli diplomats and tourists in Istanbul.
  • According to Turkish media, the cell comprised of Iranians posed as businessmen and tourists, as well as foreign nationals disguised as students.
  • Lapid expressed his appreciation to the Turkish government for this “professional and coordinated activity”.
  • Lapid noted: “Iran is behind these attempted terrorist attacks. The intelligence leaves no doubt about it. We’re not only talking about the murder of innocent Israeli tourists, but also a clear violation of Turkish sovereignty by Iranian terror. No country should tolerate terror on its soil. We are confident that Turkey knows how to respond to the Iranians on this matter. For its part, Israel won’t sit idly-by when there are attempts to harm its citizens in Israel and around the world.”

Context: Israel-Turkey relations have been improving since last summer. It began with a phone conversation between Turkish President Erdogan and President Isaac Herzog and has since included a formal Presidential visit to Turkey.

  • Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu visited Israel last month, the first visit by a senior Turkish official in 15 years.
  • President Herzog also related to the Iran threat, speaking at an Air Force graduation ceremony yesterday: “Iran stretches its long arms of terror into Israel, to our borders, and into other states. No country in the world would allow its innocent civilians to be menaced solely on account of their identity.”
  • The acute terror threat against Israeli tourists in Istanbul over the last few weeks led to close cooperation between Israeli and Turkish intelligence communities.
  • Israel’s National Security Council raised the terror threat to the highest level, implored Israelis not to travel, and if there, to leave immediately or lock themselves into their hotel rooms.
  • The Turks in turn heavily invested intelligence resources that eventually led to the cell’s capture. They also augmented security at major tourist and hotels popular with Israelis.
  • The Turkish response received high praise from Israeli officials.
  • Last week Israel publicly exposed Hossein Taeb, the senior Iranian official responsible for planning attacks against Israelis. Yesterday Taeb was fired, likely due to the capture of the terror cell.
  • Iranian media announced that Taeb is succeeded by Mohammad Kazemi, another senior commander with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

More diplomatic visits: Turkey saw extensive diplomatic activity this week.

  • Prior to the arrival of Lapid, President Erdogan hosted Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The countries are looking to normalise relations following the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
  • MBS also visited Egypt and Jordan earlier this week, as part of the Kingdom’s consolidation of regional alliances ahead of President Biden’s visit next month.
  • In addition, both Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace were also in Turkey yesterday to meet their Turkish counterparts.
  • High on their agenda was thought to be to try and convince Turkey to drop their opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

Looking ahead: Following Lapid’s visit, Israel – Turkey relations are expected to continue to improve.

  • The sides discussed the formal return of their respective ambassadors in the near future.
  • They also hope to reach agreement on extend more direct flight for Israeli tourists to more Turkish destinations.
  • Despite the success of thwarting the cell in Istanbul, Iran is expected to continue to try and retaliate for alleged Israeli assassinations of senior IRGC commanders and Iranian nuclear experts.

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