Lapid set to visit Turkey amid efforts to thwart Iranian attacks on Israelis there

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is slated to depart on Thursday for a brief trip to Turkey amid serious concerns that Iran is plotting to harm Israeli travelers in the nation.

Lapid is slated to meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during his visit, the foreign minister’s office said on Sunday, days after the pair spoke via phone about joint efforts to thwart such Iranian attacks.

Israel has issued a series of repeated harsh warnings to Israeli travelers in recent weeks to avoid visiting Turkey, and said it has foiled attempted attacks with the help of Turkish authorities. Ankara, meanwhile, has sought to dispel the notion that it is an unsafe place to visit, and chafed at the Israeli warnings.

Lapid and Cavusoglu most recently met face to face in late May, when the Turkish foreign minister paid a groundbreaking visit to the Jewish state. His trip was the first visit to Israel of a senior Turkish official in around 15 years, as Turkey’s relationship with Israel continued to thaw after a lengthy period of hostility.

Cavusoglu spoke on Sunday with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, according to Iran’s Mehr News agency. The report stated that Cavusoglu expressed a desire to “improve bilateral relations and increase mutual cooperation” with Tehran.

News of Lapid’s upcoming trip came hours after President Isaac Herzog spoke on the phone with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to discuss the ongoing security coordination.

According to a statement from Herzog’s spokesman, the president thanked Erdogan for Turkey’s efforts to protect Israeli travelers and stressed “that the threat has not yet passed and that the counterterror efforts must continue.”

Turkish riot police officers walk in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul on June 14, 2022. (Yasin Akgul / AFP)

The two leaders highlighted “the great contribution of this cooperation to the trust being built between the governments and nations,” according to the statement, and agreed to keep channels of dialogue open.

Since early last week, Israeli officials have been sounding urgent warnings that Iranian terror cells are looking to avenge the killing of a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer in May by targeting Israelis in Turkey.

Senior Israeli officials warned on Friday that there were “concrete” threats that Iran was trying to carry out a terror attack on Israelis in Istanbul over the weekend, and urged all citizens to leave Turkey immediately. It also instructed those who remained in the city to stay in their hotels.

The warnings came amid unverified reports in the Hebrew press that Israeli and Turkish intelligence had together already thwarted several planned attacks by a broad network of Iranian agents, nabbing some of the suspects.

There are currently believed to be some 2,000 Israelis in Turkey. On Sunday, Channel 12 reported that fewer Israelis were heading to the country, without providing updated figures or sources.

Channel 12 quoted officials saying that Israeli agents were in Turkey working shoulder to shoulder with their Turkish counterparts in an effort to thwart the attacks, noting that there was excellent cooperation with local officials.

According to the report, the Iranians have been planning attacks for months, apparently in revenge for the slayings of senior officers and others blamed on Israel.

Mourners gather around the coffin of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards colonel Sayyad Khodaei during a funeral procession at Imam Hussein square in the capital Tehran, on May 24, 2022. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

In late May, senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was gunned down outside his home in Tehran. An unnamed US intelligence official told The New York Times that Israel told Washington it had carried out the attack, which Israel has not confirmed.

Khodaei’s assassination was the most high-profile killing inside Iran since the November 2020 killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Sunday’s phone call is the fourth time Herzog and Erdogan have spoken by phone since Israel’s president visited Turkey in March amid gradually warming ties.

Most recently, Herzog wished Erdogan and the Turkish people a happy Eid al-Fitr in early May, while Erdogan sent a congratulatory letter ahead of Israel’s Independence Day.

On April 19, amid rising violence at the Temple Mount between Palestinians and Israeli police, Erdoğan called to express his “concern and pain” over the ongoing tensions.

During that phone call, Erdogan stressed the importance of preserving the religious status quo at the Jerusalem holy site and said he was happy to hear Israel’s firm statements about maintaining it, according to a statement from Herzog’s office.

President Isaac Herzog (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential complex in Ankara, on March 9, 2022. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Erdogan also called on April 1 to condemn a series of Palestinian terror attacks that left 11 people dead.

For over a decade, Turkey was one of Israel’s most bitter critics on the international stage. Anti-Israel rhetoric from top officials, led by Erdogan, verged on the apoplectic. Ankara also took actions that angered officials in Jerusalem, most notably providing support and a haven for the Hamas terror group.

For the past two years, however, Erdogan has struck a noticeably different tone towards Israel, expressing interest in improving ties with his erstwhile and possibly future ally.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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