Eitan Naeh: Breaking up relations is easy, rebuilding is much difficultIsrael appointed Mr. Eitan Naeh, who served as a secretary at the embassy in Ankara back in 1993, as the new ambassador to Turkey. This is the first time that this post has been filled since 2010, marking the full restoration of ties between the two countries after six years of animosity. On an exclusive interview with Ambassador Naeh, we discussed the future of Turkish-Israeli relations, the East Mediterranean energy corridor and the Middle East.
- Normalization between the two countries is continuing with high level visits. What is next in the program?
We are developing our relations. We put the roof after we put the foundation and the walls. We are setting up a schedule, renewing dialogues at different levels on different topics. We have to re-identify our common interests. We have to decide how we want to act upon it. We are at the very early stages. We have normalized our relationship, now we are re-building relations. That will take some time. We are looking into the region again after six years of not really talking to each other. A lot happened during these six years whilst we were away. It is not the same region that we saw last time we looked together at it. And we have heavy schedules; there is a referendum here, other issues in Israel… but I think that what we are expecting now to happen is a bureaucratic process of identifying areas of future cooperation, renewing old cooperation in the field of economy; we are going over the agreements.
- Can Turkey and Israel be allies again?
What it is proved in the past and not just once but several times, is that Israel is a friend of Turkey. The relationship is in both countries' interests. It is nobody’s gift to the other. It is a gift to each other. We are in or bordering the Middle East and certainly we are neighbors. The potential is great for the benefit of both peoples. We have to work together.
- What areas should be prioritized for the future of bilateral relations?
We had ups and downs in our relations. Stability is what we want to create. I think we have both matured, we both know each other’s sensitivities. My job here, and I am sure Kemal Okem’s job in Israel is, to make sure that we can solve problems and disagreements without breaking up relationships. We need to stabilize and create confidence. There are cornerstones in our relationship. Breaking up relations is easy. Rebuilding is much difficult. Despite the disagreements which you may have sometimes even with your best friends or your wife, we keep the relationship. As a diplomat I always keep close contacts with my Turkish friends and diplomats. Even at the worst times we had an open line. But this break affected the peoples. The tourists disappeared. The volume of trade was 4 billion dollars in 2007. It was maintained but it has not reached full capacity; so we lost in real terms. Every break of relations brings a break in human contact between the two countries as well, and tourism usually suffers first, business follows. Businesspeople start to look the other way. Now our task is to diversify the trade, to introduce more small and medium size businesses. Big companies do not need us. For example, Zorlu was and is in Israel despite everything because it is a big company. I am talking about small businesses. They lost contact in Israel. They were hurt from the break of the relationship. We should take care of them. So that is my job. For their sake as well, our job is to assure that our relations are kept stable. That is the job. Not easy in our region but gerekli.
- Economy is the one sphere of the relations that survived this impasse maybe because Turkey and Israel complement each other’s economy. How do you see the future of bilateral economic relations?
Our business people are meeting again; news businesses are coming in; we are looking into various projects. We want to start new dialogues in the economic sphere that we have not yet had. Today cyber [security] and high tech are very important. Look what happened in Israel last week. Mobileye was sold to Intel for 15 billion dollars. That is the power of innovation in Israel. This Israeli company controls today 70% of the autonomous car market. You have a very big economy that we cannot ignore. We have advantages: technology and innovation. As two neighbors, we have to discuss.
- What is the role of energy in this equilibrium?
Energy is one issue that will not be solved by words merely. That will take time. That is not a one-day project. My hopes vis a vis energy project is that once that and if that happens, it will open up the entire business community to each other and it won’t be limited to energy. It will have second and third tier collateral advantages. Other sectors of the economy will be open up to each other more than before. It will not be just the energy companies or energy service companies. I am sure it will be construction, high tech, investment in each other’s energy markets. As we speak, without giving too much, it already started. Today it is already happening, progressing... Energy will certainly be the locomotive and the catalyzer for these renewed relations or booming of the relations.
- There is Cyprus problem in front of the energy cooperation. How do you think it can be solved?
Of course the solution of the Cyprus problem can speed up the project. We hope that all sides will realize the win-win situation here. There is much to do in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean. If you look at the Middle East, you see Syria, Iraq… trouble. But, when you look from the West you see the East Med. Let’s talk about East Med. energy cooperation. When you look like this, things become clearer; what should be done become clearer. Think of it as an energy association. I don’t think that we are at the end of the story when it comes to energy, it is just a beginning. Our minister has invited international companies to come and join gas exploration in our economic sector. Exxon-Mobil has now joined the effort of exploration of the Cypriot side. Many other international companies are grouping together: Eni, British Gas, Shell… there is much interest and activity. Politics can be on the way, but I believe eventually, like between Israel and Turkey we sorted out the politics, people are already seeing the advantages of the win-win situation that lies in the East Med. So, let’s give it a chance.
- Israel and Turkey both have a long history of confronting terrorism. How do you see the possibilities for increased cooperation between the two states on military and intelligence?
These are issues that are kept away from the public. But I can tell you this and that is all I can tell; Turkey and Israel are both fighting terrorism and are both partners to the global fight against ISIL terrorism. Don’t forget that Israel lost citizens on the streets of Turkey in the past year. Of course we are partners in the fight against this global phenomenon and we are clearly cooperating in that field.
- The war in Syria has led to an increase in radical forces that threaten Turkey, Israel and the international community. Do you believe Israel and Turkey have common grounds in addressing Syria?
We have to understand each other better, we have to talk. We are both bordering Syria. I read what Kemal Okem, your ambassador in Israel said, we have different perspective merely because we are looking up to the north and you are looking down south. But in the long run, we have the same interest. We want to see one address in Syria. There may be different perspectives and different immediate interests, but in the long run we have the same interest.
- What about Iran? The war in Syria has introduced an increased role of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps…
We are worried about Iran’s expansionism. We are worried about the presence of Hezbollah, Quds forces, Al Qaida and ISIL next to our borders. We are following it very closely. If our sovereignty or our forces are under threat we react, we respond. We made it clear that this is our red line. This is one of the areas that we have to sit down with Turkey seriously as two friends and talk, identify interests, and find how to act upon it. Look at Iran, you don’t see any positive development coming out of Iran’s involvement anywhere. Show me one place where Iran’s involvement brought peace, tranquility, flourishing of relationships. It is always tension, mayhem, problem, terrorism. Donald Trump made it clear, Israel made it clear, I think there were some statements here as well. These are the issues that are of concern to us and let’s see if and what Turkey thinks about it.
- Historically, the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is seen as one of the main causes of the deterioration of bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel. Since the last operation to Gaza, Hamas has increased its supply of rockets and has rebuilt many tunnels. How is the situation in Gaza today and how a new conflict with Hamas can affect the normalization process with Turkey?
I hope it will not affect it. Gaza was taken over by a terrorist organization. The people of Gaza, 1,8-1,9 million people, have been taken over by a terrorist organization that has in its charter the intention that it wants to destroy Israel. If you read this charter, it is very antisemitic. It is unacceptable not just to us but to the entire international community. The Quartet, the UN, Russia, the EU, the US set up conditions that Hamas has to condemn terrorism, has to stop terrorism, has to recognize Israel and has to recognize past agreements with Israel.
- Hamas just declared this week that it will not accept these conditions…
Your question is answered. For us Hamas is a threat to national security. Friendly countries don’t have to agree on everything, but when it comes to threat to one’s national security, a) we respond to this threat, b) we expect our friends to behave in certain ways in response to a threat to a friendly country. Now, being a friend of Palestinians and being friends of Israel is not a zero sum game. You can be friends of both. We think that it is important that Turkey has the ease of the Palestinians and of Israel. You usually start the history from the beginning not from the end. The beginning of the story is good relations with Israel, that is my part of the story. Goods relations with the Palestinian Authority do not act against Israel. On the contrary, we encourage to work for the Palestinian people via the Palestinian Authority. That is the way to do it.
- Can we expect Israeli tourists this summer?
We think that there is an increase in the numbers. We hear from Antalya and from Israeli tourist agents that there is some slight increase in demand for holiday packages in Turkey. This is something that Turkish government should encourage. It is Turkey’s economy, export of services.
- How Israelis think about Turkey today, after all that happened between the two countries?
I don’t know how they think now but I can tell you how they used to think, simply because I was among those who came to Turkey for vacation even after I finished my term in Turkey. I like it here. Of course the relations back then were better. People felt welcomed. There was a warmth towards Israel. This is something that Turkey has to work on, to encourage. There are still threats. I can give you numbers. In 1993, there were 100.000 Israeli tourists coming to Turkey in a year. When we reached 2008, we had 560.000 Israelis visiting Turkey. That means that every year one of ten Israelis visited Turkey. But remember that we had direct, strong cooperation and warm relations. People felt very welcomed and almost at home here in Turkey. It is for Turkey to give that feeling.
- How is the other way around? Are Turkish tourists coming to Israel?
We are working on it. We try to encourage Turkish tourists, pilgrims to come to Israel. It is in progress. I haven’t seen one out of every ten Turks coming to Israel yet.
- This would be a huge success!
Give me one in twenty! Even one in a hundred would not be a bad idea.
- What was your intention with your tweet on the international women’s day and what do you think was the cause of the reaction you received?
I don’t know what happened there. My intention was very simple. Women should be treated equally and good every day of the year not just once a year. That was my intention.
- Maybe it was due to the girl who covered her head in the picture, a Muslim girl…
I don’t see it that way and I don’t know who sees it like that. My mother was also religious and she covered her head. It is not just Islamic. Religious Jews also cover their head. I did not look at it that way. That is in the eyes of beholders. I think women, any women religious or not, should be treated equally. I looked at it at the humanistic point of view. Women should be treated equally and good every day of the year not just once a year. That was that. I did not analyze the picture. And as a Jew when I see a covered woman I don’t say this is Islamic. My grandmother also covered her head. My father came from an ultra-orthodox family. I have deep respect for that. That is not an issue for me, if she is covered or not. A woman is a woman, covered or not, wearing a skirt or trousers… She is a woman, equal, half of world’s population. Think of them every day, respect them every day.
- This is not your first post in Turkey. You came back to learn the language in the 2000s. How does it feel to be back again? What has changed in Turkey?
First of all, I've changed. A lot of things have changed in Israel, in the world and in Turkey. I am happy to come back. I enjoyed my time here both professionally and personally. I raised a daughter here. She spent the first four years of her life here in Turkey. She does not remember much of her time here but she remembers the smells and the food. So, the first time she returned to Turkey after 20 years, she asked for yaprak [dolma]. It is still her favorite dish. When we land on Turkey we went to a restaurant to eat yaprak and mucver. For me, Turkey is not much different from what we remember. Do we remember a different Turkey? Yes. But I also remember a different Israel when I was a child. Things change. But the food, the warmth of the people, the resilience of the people, the history... These things that always attracted us to Turkey has not change. And the job then and now was to build relations. This is exactly what I came to do.