Tel Aviv Diary: Istanbul Blast Brings Turkey Closer

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On Monday morning, broadcast bulletins in Israel brought the news Israelis had been dreading: that the latest attack in Istanbul that claimed the lives of three Israelis and wounded 10 others had not randomly hit Israeli tourists.

Reports from Istanbul now categorically state that the suicide bomber had in fact followed the  group of Israelis from their hotel and then detonated himself. For Israelis, the notion of being targeted abroad harkens back to “the bad old days,” when Israelis and Israeli institutions were the main targets of Palestinian terror.

Modern international terror began in the late 1960s, with waves of airline hijackings and planes that were blown up. El Al, Israel’s national airline, was the first target. However, after one successful skyjacking, Israel implemented a high enough level of security that Israeli planes were no longer successful targets.

Still, that did not stop the Palestinians from targeting other Israeli objectives, the most infamous of all being the attack on the Israeli delegation to the Munich Olympics in 1972.

After Oslo, the Palestinians resolved to forego international terrorism, deciding it was counterproductive. Yet that fact has not stopped Hezbollah from trying to employ terrorist tactics overseas—though their attacks over the course of the past few years have been largely ineffectual. ISIS, with its vast cadre of supporters, could prove to be a more formidable threat, as Saturday’s attack in Istanbul proved.

Today, funerals will be held in different parts of Israel for those killed in Turkey, while many victims of the Istanbul attack remain wounded in Israeli hospitals. To Israelis, many of whom are fed up with our myriad of problems, the events of this past weekend were a sad reminder of what makes this country special.

On Saturday afternoon, when word of the attack surfaced, the fact that Israelis were wounded and killed spread quickly. There were special news bulletins (something that rarely happens on the Jewish Sabbath). By the time night fell, special Medivac jets of Hatzalah, a private organization that provides emergency medical care in Israel, were en route to Turkey to bring home some of the Israeli wounded.

In addition, several members of the Israeli Foreign Service traveled to Istanbul to help their colleagues. The following morning, Israel’s air force, in close cooperation with the Turkish authorities, dispatched an Israeli Hercules to Istanbul filled with a team of doctors and a mobile intensive care unit on board.

A few hours later, the plane returned to Israel carrying the remaining Israeli wounded, together with the bodies of those who had been killed.

(It’s well known among Israelis who maintain dual citizenship that if you are traveling abroad and have a problem, contact the Israeli embassy first—and not the embassy of the other country from which you hold another passport, even if that country is considered more powerful or better connected.)  

Israeli news coverage of the events in Istanbul did not focus only on the personal dimension of the tragedy, but it devoted a great deal of the coverage and speculation to the strategic dimensions. The first moments after the blast started rather inauspiciously, with a leading official in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party tweeting that she wished all the Israelis in the attack had been killed. As the night went on, her tweet was deleted and word spread that she had been fired.

By late Saturday night, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sent a letter of condolence to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, specifically relating to the loss of Israeli life. Last night, news broke that Erdogan, long considered a foe of Israel, had written a similar letter to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, stating: “I want to send my deepest condolences to the Israeli people and the families that lost their loved ones in this traitorous attack.”  

Israel and Turkey have been at odds since Israel’s interception of the Marmara, the Turkish ship, sent to attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2010.

Israel and Turkey had had a long history of close cooperation until the rise of Erdoğan’s Islamic party to power. Since then, the ties, which were the strongest example of military-to-military cooperation, have cooled considerably.

The strong economic interdependency between the two countries—which includes large numbers of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey every year and the fact that Turkish Airlines is the second-busiest carrier at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, surpassed only by the Israel’s National Carrier El Al—kept these ties from breaking completely.

In the past months, as Turkey has found itself in an ever more difficult geopolitical reality, attempts have been made for reconciliation with Israel. Speculation in the past few days has been widespread that the attack this past weekend will hasten that reconciliation.

While the bombing in Istanbul was the focus of most of the news over the weekend, two other events could end up having even greater impact. The local ISIS affiliate in the Sinai desert killed 23 Egyptian security personnel in a combined suicide bombing. And on Israel’s border with Syria on the Golan Heights, the loosely affiliated group Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (LSY) has begun to attack other opposition groups there, in attempts to gain greater control of the Heights and the borders with Israel and Jordan.  

According to Daniel Nisman, security analyst of the Levantine Group, “LSY in the Golan has a few barriers, physical and non-physical, preventing it from carrying out sustained attacks against Israel, but the group may find it advantageous to stage a symbolic cross-border attack, particularly if it declares allegiance to ISIS and wants to do so ‘with a bang.’ But realistically, the group knows that provoking Israel may result in a military bombardment that could compromise its far more crucial goals of spreading control in the Deraa Province.”

On the bright side, on Monday morning Israelis were pleasantly surprised to find out that last night Israel had evacuated the last 17 Jews from war-torn Yemen.

Historian Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com.