“We have to find a way to deal with the threat of terror together”

Israel’s newly appointed General Consul of Istanbul Shai Cohen, has been approved by President Erdoğan and started his mission. As an expert on counter-terrorism, Cohen believes that fighting together against the Jihad threat in the region is both Turkey and Israel’s mutual interest. Cohen told us his plans and objectives for the future. The General Consul also stated his remarks about the recent developments in Jerusalem.

Photo: Alberto Modiano

November 19, 2014

First of all, we have something in mutual. My ancestors are coming from Gaziantep and I believe your father was from Gaziantep.

Not my father; he was born in Jerusalem. But his parents came from the region of Gaziantep. I am reading the book nowadays -The Jews of Gaziantep- and I noticed two very important indicators. One is that there were many Cohens in Gaziantep, and my father is from Cohen ancestors. And the second very important thing is most of the Jews in Gaziantep came from Spain which is not the common knowledge. This is very unusual because everybody thinks that, Jews from Spain came to Thessaloniki, İzmir and İstanbul mostly. But it’s not true. Jews went to the east as well.

Actually when I checked our history, some of my ancestors are coming from Damascus, Aleppo. At those times the region was more open to social interaction from the outside… Everybody used to speak very fluent Arabic. My mom is from Lebanon. My father from Gaziantep. I know all the traditions of Gaziantep.

That was the times of the Ottoman Empire… Maybe we are family. Maybe you are my cousins... I will start calling you ‘my cousin’.

One day I would like to take you to Gaziantep and show you the remains of the synagogue and Jewish cemetery… Besides all of these, how do you do?

I’m good, and busy. Everybody around me is busy as well.

Now you are assigned by President Erdoğan. The relationship between Israel and Turkey goes up and down. How do you see the ground? What do you want to do?

First of all thank you very much for your welcoming and your kind attention all means. I feel very warm and at home. I will give you a very structural explanation of what I’m planning to do in Turkey. I divide the issues into three clusters. First one is political strategy. The second one is what I call economic policy. And the third is civil society. I will elaborate on each one. As an introduction it is very important to deal with each one of these clusters simultaneously. Not one depending on another. Although political and strategic is a little bit delicate, doesn’t mean that there are no mutual interest between Israel and Turkey, mostly in the regional strategic issues.

What are these mutual interests?

The main issue that everybody is preoccupied today is the Jihad terror. When I say Jihad terror it’s not only ISIS. Doesn’t matter how you call it. In Israel when we speak about the threat of terrorism, it’s mostly the Jihad terror. Before coming to Istanbul, for five years I was the head of regional security counter terrorism department in the MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Therefore I know and understand the problem from inside, all the intelligence and so on. For the last two-three years, we have been following all the liaisons between all of those Jihad elements in the region. More than a year ago, we have started strategic and counter terrorism dialogues with other states, US-Canada- Western Europe, EU and so on. We are showing the same map of threats. If you imagine a map of Middle East in your mind, there is like a Jihad belt around Israel.  Jihad belt consists of organizations like Al-Nusra Front, ISIS, Al-Queda. If you go down to southern eastern part of Middle East, in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, you can find Jihad elements as well. The successor of Bin Ladin is in Yemen and he is conducting operations from there. If you go upwards again, in Egypt there are at least 12 Jihad organizations. The most important one is Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. It has at least two thousand or maybe three thousand fighters ready to fight. There groups also have foreign fighters, too. If you go further west, the Jihad situation in Libya is becoming stronger. In Nigeria, you have Boko Haram. It’s like a belt composed of Jihad elements. Turkey is also surrounded from another corner of the Middle East. We share a very similar problem. Turkey’s problem is much greater than ours. Because it has more than 1000 kilometers of border with Syria. And most of the threats are there, ISIS is along that border on Syria and Iraqi side.

This is the most important issue that we have to deal regionally. And it is obvious there is a common interest between Israel and Turkey to curtail this threat. How do we curtail this threat? Only with international cooperation. Turkey with these enormous borders, needs assistance in technology, know-how and training, intelligence, border control and so on… Nobody can do this alone. Even USA, until now, couldn’t manage to seal the border with Mexico. There are still infiltrations from Mexico; human trafficking, criminals, etc… USA has the most advanced border technology, including satellites and everything. Besides that USA has many agencies that deal with these issues, such as DEA, CIA, FBI, Ministry of Justice… And still it is not enough. So you can’t expect Turkey to do it all alone. There is 1200 km of border and Jihad threat imposed on it. The message here should be very clear: There is a mutual interest that is common to Israel and Turkey, as well as to the other states in the region. And of course to the international community. International community is mostly preoccupied with the foreign fighters. What most concerns the international community and mostly Western European countries is, all of those foreign Jihadists born in the west, second or third generation Muslims. There are three thousand western Jihadists we know of. They cross Turkey and reach the fighting zones in Iraq and Syria. When they go home, if they are uninjured, they become a ticking bomb. Best example was the terrorist attack in Brussels Jewish Museum last April. Four people were murdered and among them two were Israeli tourists. The perpetrator was third generation French Muslim; he went to Syria in 2012 and went back to his home in southern France. Then he went to Brussels to perpetuate the terrorist attack. Because of Schengen and lack of border control, he crossed the border with his rifle. He has a French passport. Also he came in and out of Turkey with his French passport. This brings up the issue of Schengen, issue of borders in EU and borders between EU - Turkey such as Greece and Bulgaria. Those borders are vulnerable and should be monitored, aside from the Turkish side. Airports are an issue as well. Many of those foreign Jihadists land in Istanbul, Adana, Antalya with an European passport. Since they haven’t done anything wrong, they are considered tourists by the Turkish authorities. You can do nothing to anyone just because he looks suspicious.

All of this is changing now. Policies and mode of cooperation are changing. Schengen has introduced new biometric visas. They take fingerprints and facial pictures, they send it to their authorities back home, connect to the center of passenger information, Interpol and Europol simultaneously. And if the guy is suspected of anything, the red light goes on the computers and they don’t issue the visa. He is banned from entering Schengen. This is a start but not enough. Because we are mostly talking about European citizens and they don’t need a visa. He just takes a plane and flies back home. For that, there is a need to combine PNRs (passenger name records) of each state. Each state has a PNR. EU has a common PNR for 28 members. Now they sign an agreement with Canada and US to share PNRs. Not yet with Turkey. When you share PNRs, suspected passengers can be detained, questioned and even prevented from entry. If a Jihad fighter comes to Ataturk Airport on his way home from Iraq or Syria, if there is PNR record that shows that he has spent one year in the region before going back to France, he will be examined, questioned. This is common interest between Israel and Turkey. But unfortunately now we don’t have this kind of dialogue that we used to.

I hope the politics will change soon because both countries need it…

With the absence of this dialogue we are losing two things: One is the share of information and intelligence. The second one is the ability to assist each other on technological means and trainings.

The common interest is very clear. They threat both Turkey and Israel, from both sides. We don’t have a military problem with ISIS. We can very easily contain them militarily. But still threat is a threat. They threat our borders from the Golan Heights as well as the Jihadi elements in south Lebanon. At this point, it’s very important for me to emphasize Hezbollah; most important threat to yet. Especially to our security. They have more than thousand rockets; more than 50 percent are operational. These rockets range up to 700 km. By far, the most important strategic threat in Israel. Also Hezbollah terrorists attack overseas. Only a few weeks ago in Peru, they arrested a Lebanese citizen who was planning a terrorist attack. West does not put much emphasize on Hezbollah, because Hezbollah is fighting ISIS now, serving western interest. And I can tell you from first source, we know about meetings between certain western politicians meeting Hezbollah leaders over the last year and so, all in the name of fight against the Jihad. Because Hezbollah is doing all the fighting in Syria and Iraq against ISIS. We assume about 600 Hezbollah fighters have already died fighting in Syria.

What are you planning to do in the coming terms?

I come with a new approach, not the same approach as before. The three clusters I mentioned earlier are very important, especially the balance with each other. I am not impressed with all kind of protocol, artificial treatment, etc. I not impressed because the reality is different. The reality is, we have mutual interest in strategic goals. This is my first message.  And we cannot escape from that. The interest is there, the terrorist is there. And together we have to find ways to curtail that terrorist threat. That is the most important right now.

Then comes the economy. The bilateral trade that exceeds 5 billion now, which is historical. (It was 4 billion in 2012, now it’s more than 5 billion. Increased more than 25 % in 2 years). This statistics does not count services and investments. They are additional. But let along the bilateral trade we need to promote regional economic policy. In the energy field, water management, natural gas findings, financing and banking, etc. For instance, look at the number of flights we have a day- we have around 7, 8 maybe 9 flights a day. Turkish and Pegasus are flying.

What about El Al?

El Al might start flying close to next summer. I say ‘might’. Because the decision relies on the economic reasoning. It’s a question of numbers. It’s not a question of treaties or bilateral agreements. They have all been done. It’s a question of economic feasibility.

If we go back to normalization of the relations…

When I’m talking about the normalization of relations it’s not only the bilateral trade. Mutual interest in the energy field is an important subject for instance. Last week, there was a big conference on energy in Israel. And there was Turkish participation. Next week we have another big conference on technologies of public security. There will be at least 4-5 high level representatives from Turkish companies. All these things in the economic field moving and developing. My intention is to introduce the term ‘economic policy’ in our relations. Because policy is common to both countries, should be. There’s an expression in Hebrew, don’t only think how to sell and buy, think about the larger picture. This is the idea. Because the private sector is working already. Exceeding 5 billion dollars -although we are in political bilateral crisis- means a lot about the intentions of the private sector. I have contacts with the private sector, everybody is doing business as usual. And the proof is the increase in the trade numbers.

What about the governmental base? You used to work more with the army…

Procedure of having defense equipment transactions is very complicated. We are not going to touch that right now. It’s not just to participate in bids; it’s much more complicated than that. But it is a fact that military trade went down between Israel and Turkey in the last few years, in very deep numbers.

When I say ‘economic policy’ I am referring to the regional interest. Like the development of renewed energy, green energy. Natural gas is on the agenda. In Israel they are going to introduce new regulations on the use of natural gas on public transportation. And Turkey has a lot to offer in that field because in Turkey public transportation is already partly working with natural gas. Karsan, the Turkish company that produces buses, is selling their technology in use of natural gas to certain countries in Europe now. In Europe the regulations are already there, infrastructure is already there. In Israel now we are adapting our regulations of the European Unions’. Once that happens I am sure that there will be another economic contact between Turkey and Israel.

Water management is another issue. All of those issues have to do with economy, trade and finance. On all of the issues we have future common interests. There are elements on both sides working on these issues. Our duty, this is my approach, look for those elements, work together and bring closer the relations in that way.

And there is the civil society…

Third cluster which is the civil society is the widest. When I say civil society I’m referring to cultural exchange, academic exchange, mass media, social media, NGO’s, all of those that are operating in the civil field. The sky is the limit. I must tell you in the two months that I am here I am surprised by the number of activities. It’s my job to talk to people and try to absorb the feelings and the intentions. I can’t remember even one negative response to anything. It’s P2P, people to people. In the times of Oslo, there were P2P projects between the people of Israel and Palestine. This term was born at that time, in 1993. There is book of P2P projects that were done until now. P2P relations between Turkey and Israel is very important. For instance, the history. Like you said at the beginning, the Gaziantep Jews. Connections that goes back hundreds of years ago, generations before our time. The impact of the Ottoman Empire on Israel is tremendous. At the end of this month we are going to have a culinary week in Turkey, in Istanbul and in Ankara. We are bringing this young chef woman, with a number of journalists. We are going to have culinary activities, including like mutual kind of culinary dinner, based on mutual cooking of Israel and Turkey. Israeli culinary life is influenced by the Ottoman culinary traditions. This applies to many things like spices, fruits, vegetables, concept of selling fresh vegetables... When you enter a supermarket here, it looks exactly a supermarket in Israel. You have the fruits, vegetables department and everything is fresh. This is only the visible. There are also the invisible issues such as archeology, architecture. The walls of the old city of Istanbul were built at the same time as the walls of the old city of Jerusalem; same stones, same construction, same architecture; everything is the same. As if, if you put El Aksa, instead of Topkapi, you may think it’s Jerusalem. And there are many many other examples. And it’s something that’s impossible to change. It’s not this politician or that, leading this or that country.

What can you say about recent events in Jerusalem?

Israel’s official policy is anchored in protection of freedom of religion and worship for all religions in Jerusalem. All the Jewish places as well as Christian sacred places are open to everyone. Anyone can visit the Wailing Wall and pray there. After 1967, Israel as the sovereign and the responsible of the welfare of Jerusalem, made an agreement to leave the administration of El Aqsa Mosque to the Wakf because of its holiness to Muslim people. Status quo establishes the visit of non-Muslims to Temple Mount is allowed but they cannot enter the Mosque. Also Jews and non-Muslims are not allowed to pray in the Temple Mount.

Netanyahu and the Israeli government will take necessary measures against any extremists, Jews and Arabs who try to change the status quo. In the meeting Netanyahu had with Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah, the status quo was discussed and they all agreed Israel to continue with the commitment to the status quo. What happened in Jerusalem recently was pure provocation by Palestinian extremists trying to burn the Mosque from inside trying to violate the status quo. The movement is ideologically affiliated with Cihad and Hamas with the aim of undermining the balance and regional stability. The Israeli authorities, in the frame work of responsibility over this area are by law committed to protect Temple Mount and to preserve public safety and security. The only time the Israeli police enters the area is in very rare times of violence like it happened last week. The administration is upon The Wakf. Last week, extremists put shells in the mosque itself which could cause the Mosque to burn down. The Israeli police had to enter the Mosque to put off fire and reset order.

What are your plans for the coming days?

I am going to Izmir in late November. I am planning to go to Edirne and Bursa before the end of this year and other districts at the beginning of next year. Each of the places I go I will tell the same messages, speak about the same objectives. It’s not contradictory my view to actual diplomatic status. This is the plan of action presented to our ministry in Jerusalem.

Is this your first visit to Turkey?

I had few visits before. First one was with young people’s delegations back in the 90’s – Istanbul and the GAP area. Then I had 2-3 professional visits to Istanbul. During my previous post, I came to Izmir for a conference 3 years ago.

How do you find Istanbul?

I have been to many beautiful cities and lived in beautiful cities- Jerusalem, Rome. I think Istanbul is in the top three. By all means. The sightseeing, the culture, the food, everything…

Do you have any message to the Jewish community of Turkey?

I see the collaboration with the Jewish community vital. I found a very open Jewish community here, on the contrary of what I have been told before coming. Related to Israel religiously. Everywhere I go, everyone I talked to so far, we share the same views about how to promote the bilateral relations between Israel and Turkey.




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