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Over the weekend, the news emerged that an Israeli delegation of Shas MKs, European Haredi rabbis, and Bar-Ilan University professor of Arabic and Islam Moti Kedar made a secret visit to Turkey last week. According to the reports in the Israeli press, the group was led by Shas MK and deputy finance minister Yitzhak Cohen and had approval from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, although it appears that the Foreign Ministry was not on board with the trip and even tried to sway Cohen from attending some of the meetings. It also appears as if the group was invited to Turkey by “local interfaith organizations” and met with Turkish parliamentarians, including some from the AKP.
There are a number of strange things going on here. First, I can’t find any mention of this secret visit in the Turkish press. As of last night there were zero references to it in either the English language Hürriyet Daily News or Today’s Zaman, or in the Turkish language Hürriyet, Zaman, or Radikal. The Turkish press might not be reporting the story because the government does not want it to get out that members of the AKP have been meeting with Israeli officials, or it might be that the Turkish press finds this to be a non-story, but it’s odd to me that nobody in Turkey has any original reporting on this and that the Turkish papers haven’t even picked up the story from the Israel press.
Second, I’d love to know the identity of the unnamed interfaith groups that invited the Israeli delegation to Turkey and presumably set up meetings for them with Turkish MPs. The first group that comes to mind, of course, is the Gülen movement, and Gülenists certainly have the sway to set up meetings between Cohen and AKP officials, but then we run into the problem that the Gülenist newspapers – Today’s Zaman and Zaman – have been completely silent about the trip. One would think that if the Gülenists had arranged the trip, their press outlets would be touting it. It’s also a strange mix of people that the unnamed interfaith groups invited, with its combination of Israeli Haredi Knesset members, non-Israeli European rabbis, and Moti Kedar, who is a rightwing academic known for his willingness to tangle with al-Jazeera hosts in Arabic but to my knowledge is not an expert on Turkey. The Shas MKs would certainly have a reason to talk to the AKP and try to improve official ties between Israel and Turkey, but the Europeans and Kedar have no purpose for being there in this regard, and so it almost looks like the point of the trip was indeed about some sort of interfaith dialogue and that any political meetings Cohen had were entire ancillary to the whole thing.
Third, the reported disagreement between Netanyahu’s office and the Foreign Ministry is intriguing. Avigdor Lieberman is a vocal hardliner when it comes to Turkey, and reiterated that Israel has no intention of apologizing to Turkey during his meetings with Turkish journalists in Israel last month. That the Foreign Ministry under Lieberman would not want Israeli MKs traveling to Turkey and meeting with the AKP with no strings attached and without embassy supervision is not at all surprising. This incident might signal a real split between Netanyahu and Lieberman over repairing the relationship with Turkey. In this light, the fact that Shas members are the ones who went to Turkey takes on greater significance, since there is outright hostility between Shas and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, and between Lieberman and Shas head (and Interior Minister) Eli Yishai. If there is any party that would have no hesitation at all over crossing Lieberman and going against the wishes of the Foreign Ministry, it would be Shas. On the other hand, if this was a delegation explicitly sent by Netanyahu, it would strange to send Cohen and Nissim Zeev rather than Likud MKs or even one of Bibi’s personal advisers. Shas is not known for its expertise or even interest in foreign affairs, and using Shas MKs to act as diplomats would be highly unusual.
So in sum, something about this whole thing seems off to me. It doesn’t seem like it was orchestrated or initiated by Netanyahu even though he seems to have had no problem with it, and the veil of secrecy also makes little sense if it was not a delegation empowered to do much of anything. There would be no reason for the cloak and dagger routine over an attempt at interfaith dialogue, but there would also be no reason to have European rabbis and Kedar on the trip if it were anything but that. If the trip was actually planned as an interfaith dialogue but Cohen and Zeev were instructed to carry out a side mission of talking to the Turkish government, then the secrecy surrounding the trip was even more ill-conceived since once the story leaked it would ruin any efforts at plausible deniability. Basically, I can’t quite figure out what is going on here. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Somehow I missed that Today’s Zaman ran a short piece yesterday quoting Ynet on the Shas visit to Turkey (thanks to Claire Berlinski for alerting me to that), but after I wrote this post last night, the Turkish language dailies this morning ran with the story of the Israeli delegation’s visit, so ignore my speculation above on why the Israeli press had this story but the Turkish press didn’t. The Turkish press did make a big contribution to our knowledge though by reporting that the Israeli delegation met with, among others, the notorious Adnan Oktar (otherwise known by the honorific Adnan Hoca or by his
real assumed name, Harun Yahya), who was presumably the “local interfaith organization” that invited Cohen and his cohort to Turkey. If you’ve never heard of Oktar, take ten minutes and read this right now, and you will have gotten your fill of daily entertainment. For those who want the short version, Oktar is a Turkish televangelist known for being a Holocaust denier and for keeping what is literally a harem. He has also been charged with a bevy of crimes including rape, blackmail, theft, and cocaine possession. He is currently popular with the Israeli rabbinical crowd as he has denounced his former views on Jews and the Holocaust and defends Jews as vigorously as he used to denounce them. He has in the past scored a meeting with Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and has a long-standing relationship with Kedar, which explains how Shas MKs would be coming to Turkey at his invitation but does not even come close to explaining why Israeli rabbis and officials are granting Oktar any shred of legitimacy. Is Israel really so desperate for a friendly face that it can’t find anyone with a more stable background than Oktar? It also sheds some new light on why the Foreign Ministry, which is presumably more familiar with Oktar’s exploits than the prime minister’s office, might have had reservations about the whole thing.