The installation of Mekin Mustafa Kemal Ökem as Turkey’s ambassador to Israel Monday is another step of the reconciliation process between Israel and Turkey that began last summer when Prime Minister Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed to mend ties after a six-year frost.
Erdoğan has been a frequent critic of Israel, and ties between Ankara and Jerusalem reached a nadir in June, 2009 when 10 Turkish citizens died in a clash with IDF Navy Seals on board the Mavi Marmara ship during an attempt to break through Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Erdoğan recalled Turkey’s ambassador in protest, and expelled Israel’s representative to Turkey in response.
In accepting Ökem’s credentials, Israeli President Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin said, “Mr. Ambassador, today is an honor, and a real moment in history. I want to express my appreciation to President Erdoğan, and I thank him again for Turkey’s help in fighting the fires across Israel last month.
“Our friendship goes back in history, and I hope that the reconciliation and the appointment of new ambassadors will open a new and promising page in this relationship. We must work together to promote our economic relations, trade and energy cooperation, as a real engine of growth for our friendship,” Rivlin added.
Ökem’s appointment follows the November nomination of Eitan Na’eh as his Israeli counterpart to Ankara, also as part of the reconciliation deal, which was ratified by the Turkish parliament in August.
The deal also paves the way for future cooperation to exploit natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. In October, Energy and Water Resources Minister Yuval Steinitz me with Turkish counterpart Berat Albayrak to discuss the idea of building a pipeline to supply Turkey with Israeli natural gas.
Rivlin also emphasized the importance of these efforts in providing an example of peaceful coexistence and added that the two countries had to cooperate in strengthening their “common ground.”
“When I spoke to President Erdogan, we spoke about the situation in Gaza. I want to thank him for his commitment to help return the bodies of our soldiers held by Hamas. Israel, like Turkey, places great importance in rebuilding the lives of the civilians in Gaza; in infrastructure, economy, energy, water, and more. This must be with the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority,” he said. .
In July, the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected a petition by bereaved families of terror victims who sought to overturn the cabinet decision to normalize ties with Turkey, deploring the absence of Turkish engagement to help Israel retrieve the bodies from Hamas’ hands within the agreement.
Ökem also marked the occasion, saying “Our region has more than its share of challenges but also of big opportunities. As before, Turkey and Israel will work together to make sure that these opportunities are fully utilized and challenges are met.
“I will explore all opportunities for cooperation in every field to the mutual benefit of our two nations. As ambassador, I will do my best to enhance our relations in every field – regardless of any difficulties that we may face, we will be able to overcome together with our partners and friends Israel,” he claimed.
Ökem has previously served at the Turkish embassies in London and Riyadh, and was serving as the Turkish Prime Minister’s advisor on foreign affairs at the time of his appointment as ambassador to Israel.
Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, Research Fellow at the Institute for National and Security Studies (INSS) and Turkish foreign policy specialist, had told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) that the decision to exchange the ambassadors was “a positive sign of the determination of both sides to move ahead with the normalization process.”