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The spy story that sent Israel’s ties with Turkey up in flames (again)

    The Israeli flag is burnt during a protest in Istanbul (Photo: AP)
    The Israeli flag is burnt during a protest in Istanbul (Photo: AP)

    The full extent of the damage done to Israel-Turkey ties in recent years was revealed only last Thursday in the Washington Post by David Ignatius, a columnist with significant sources in the US State Department.

    According to Mr Ignatius, as a reprisal against Israel, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan disclosed to Iranian intelligence the identities of up to ten Iranian citizens who had met Mossad case officers in Turkey.

    The information was allegedly passed on by the Turkish intelligence agency MIT, headed by Mr Erdogan’s close adviser, Hakan Fidan.

    If the reprisal took place, it will have damaged Israel considerably and was an unspeakable breach of the quiet arrangements that have existed between the two countries’ spy agencies for over 50 years.

    No Israeli officials were prepared to confirm the details.

    Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu described the story as “black propaganda”, and other Turkish sources accused Israel of leaking the story.

    Former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote on his Facebook page that was “unsurprised” by the Turkish response. “I don’t know if there was such a spy network,” he added, “and the Turkish accusation that Israel is behind the publication just to avoid paying compensation to the Marmara casualties proves that Turkey under Erdogan is uninterested in improving relations with Israel.”

    The Post report has not come as a complete surprise to observers of the tortuous relationship between the countries that were once allies.

    As far back as July 2010, Israel’s then defence minister, Ehud Barak, called Mr Fidan a “friend of Iran” in a closed briefing, adding that “there are quite a few secrets of ours [entrusted to Turkey] and the thought that they could become open to the Iranians… let’s say, is quite disturbing.”

    Some Israeli intelligence officials have gone further and called the MIT chief “an Iranian plant”.

    This was, of course, an exaggeration and Mr Fidan, who is not a professional spy chief but an official who was promoted by Mr Erdogan and was almost certainly acting at his boss’s behest.

    However, in recent months, following the public apology by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Mr Erdogan over the killing of nine Turkish activists during the Israeli operation against the flotilla to Gaza in May 2010, there has been a slow and wary rapprochement between the two countries.

    This has reportedly included a meeting in Ankara between Mr Fidan and head of Mossad, Tamir Pardo.

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