David Ignatius and the Wall Street Journal reported this week that after the Mavi Marmara massacre, in which the IDF executed nine Turks aboard the vessel, Turkey took its revenge by betraying a cell of Iranian agents of the Mossad. The Israeli intelligence agency, since David Ben Gurion first signed a bilateral accord with the Turkish government in 1958, has used that country as a neutral, if not friendly, country in which to host meetings with agents from Middle Eastern countries like Iran.
Keep in mind that it’s here that IRG general Ali Reza Asgari disappeared (in Istanbul in 2007) after arriving from Iran.
The Israeli source whom I’ve relied on for many of my previous security-related stories, confirmed Ignatius’ account.
Turkey exposed the cell in 2012, amid Israel’s ongoing refusal to meet a package of Turkish demands calling for an apology, compensation to surviving families of the victims, and easing the Gaza siege. To my mind, Prime Minister Erdogan, believing Israel would never accept Turkey’s terms, decided that breaking the spy cell would show Israel that there would be a price for its intransigence.
Further, Turkey’s leader was signaling an Arab-Muslim pivot in its relations. It was transferring its energy from a western/Israeli direction, in light of the EU’s ongoing refusal to admit Turkey as a member, to an easterly direction. East faces Iran, among others. Another signal of this pivot was Turkey’s teaming with Brazil to propose a compromise solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma. Those two nations had sealed a deal with Iran that the U.S. initially received favorably, but then abandoned. That action, by the Bush administration, further persuaded Turkey that it needed to look elsewhere for allies than the west.
One of Erdogan’s major foreign policy themes related to Israel is that it pays a price for its ongoing refusal to end the Occupation and recognize a Palestinian state. When he saw that Israel had drawn blood with the killing of his citizens, he decided, after waiting for some Israeli movement, to offer tit for tat and harm Israel’s intelligence interests in a fundamental way.
I don’t agree with Ignatius’ view that Israel’s intransigence in the negotiation was a result of Turkey betraying its agents. After all, Israel had been refusing to meet Turkey’s demands since the 2010 massacre. It wasn’t like Israel’s position had hardened since 2010. It refused then and it refused in 2012.
There are some issues that trouble me and reveal, I think, the Mossad’s blundering in this matter. If your country has just killed 9 citizens of a putative ally and has refused to offer any significant reparation, why would you send your agents and spies to meetings in such a place? What would you expect? That because the relationship had existed for 50 years nothing you did would harm it? Did the Mossad think that Turkey wouldn’t blame it; wouldn’t harm its interests just for old time’s sake?
The biggest question is who leaked this story to the Post. An internal Turkish opposition source might have, but I think this is doubtful. The Iranians would have no interest in revealing that they’d gotten the better of the Mossad, since the current nuclear negotiations appear quite promising. Israel, at first glance, gains little by this leak. It would be telling the world it was exploiting Turkey’s hospitality by running its agents there. It would be revealing that Iranian intelligence had gotten the better of the Mossad and destroyed a major component of its espionage capability inside Iran.
The Journal’s article makes an implicit claim that the source might be the U.S. But what would be our motive? The article says some officials here view Fidan’s role and that of Turkey’s in the region with growing alarm. There’s also a vague claim that he leaked U.S. and Israeli intelligence to Iran three years ago, though no word about the substance of the incident.
What concerns me about this theory is–what is our motive? Why would we want to take on Turkey when it’s our ally in the Syria conflict and might help broker a deal with Iran, as it almost succeeded in doing once before?
Perhaps Obama might want to take Bibi down a peg or two by exposing an embarrassing Israeli intelligence failure. The U.S. leader might want to do so just to let the Israeli know who’s boss. Especially if there’s an Iran-western agreement about the nuclear program with Israel rejects with every fiber of its being. Perhaps it’s a shot across Israel’s bow warning it that the U.S. can cause far more embarrassment should it choose to do so.
What about Israel as the source? It might want desperately to hurt both Turkey and Iran due to the current warming of relations between the latter and the west. In Israel’s mind, it might evoke some sympathy in the west for the lives of the Iranians who were arrested. It might show the Turks to be cruel and duplicitous in betraying their agents. And it would display Iran’s ruthlessness in rooting out traitors to the regime.
This passage in Ignatius’ story is the biggest giveaway of what may be the true source:
Top Israeli officials believe that, despite the apology, the severe strain with Erdogan continues. The Turkish intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, is also suspect in Israel because of what are seen as friendly links with Tehran; several years ago, Israeli intelligence officers are said to have described him facetiously to CIA officials as “the MOIS station chief in Ankara,” a reference to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The United States continued to deal with Fidan on sensitive matters, however.
This is the only part of his report where the reporter specifies a source, and it is Israeli. The Israelis clearly have an axe to grind with Turkey’s intelligence chief, so they all but label him Little Ayatollah, Iran’s inside man in the Erdogan regime. But do the Israelis think that anyone will believe such a claim? That Erdogan’s intelligence chief is an agent of Iran? Preposterous.
More likely the Americans who were offered this assessment believed just the opposite: that Fidan was a dangerous enemy who Israel sought to discredit. In fact, the only strongmen Israel likes are the ones it can control. And Israel can control neither Erdogan nor Fidan.
Turkey’s foreign minister vehemently rebutted this report and pointed to a dark hand at work. Al Monitor’s Turkey correspondent noted that Ignatius was the moderator of the infamous Davos panel in which Erdogan walked out when Shimon Peres droned on and on about how no nation had any right to dispute Israel’s right to do whatever the hell it wanted in Gaza. The Turkish leader was none too happy when Ignatius pressed his hand into his shoulder to quiet him, and then he left the stage. In other words, Israel saw Ignatius as being a willing conduit, because he might have his own personal ax to grind against Erdogan.
The new Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer is both Bibi’s political soul mate and the sort of political knife-fighter who might leak such a story.
If instilling sympathy for Israel was Bibi’s goal, it can’t have been more misguided in this case. The world is no longer singing from the Israeli hymn book. Iran is no longer the big bad bogeyman. The train’s left the station and Bibi’s still standing on the platform with suitcase in hand.
To those pragmatic Israeli officials who want to preserve a relationship with Turkey (which includes my source), this news is water under the bridge. They’d argue that Israel, more recently has found common cause with Turkey in supporting the Syrian rebels against the Assad dictatorship. The Israeli source I mentioned above had reported weeks ago that the reason why Israeli war planes came from an unusual direction and surprised Syria’s air defense during one raid, was that Turkey had allowed the jets to operate from its own air base. To these pragmatists, who think not only about past slights and bad blood, but about the future as well, the Turkish relationship is too important to give up on.
Israel hawks (and perhaps Ignatius shares some of their views in this matter) see enemies everywhere. Wherever there is an Arab or Muslim is yet another potential enemy. Erdogan has proven himself, in their view,to be a shrewd, wily enemy. Because of his country’s rising role in the region (despite missteps along the way like the internal Gezi Park protests), he’s another potential Haman rising up to threaten the Jews, to use the terminology of the religious tradition, and Israel in more contemporary terms.
So the hawks see Turkey as perhaps a slightly more moderate version of Iran. But an enemy who can’t be trusted and can never be accommodated. For them, relations with Turkey have soured.
If someone with an anti-Iran ax to grin released the story, it’s a cynical, nihilist perspective in which everyone is an enemy and Israel is justified in single-handedly, Samson-like toppling the walls of the temple (in this case Iran).