Netanyahu set to embark on rare trip to Muslim countries
In an effort to reach out to moderate Muslim countries, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated Tuesday morning to take off for a historic two-day visit to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. He will thus become the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit the region in almost 25 years of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.
Both countries are important allies. Azerbaijan, which has a long border with Iran, is a secular state that has long had warm relations with Israel. Nearly 98 percent of its 10 million citizens are Muslim, the vast majority of them Shiites. Baku is one of Israel’s main trading partners, buying weapons systems and providing the Jewish state with the lion’s share of its oil. Israeli trade with Azerbaijan is said to be significantly higher than with France, for example.
Baku is reportedly interested in acquiring Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, a deal that is likely to be discussed during this week’s visit.
Kazakhstan, where Netanyahu and his delegation will spend two nights, is interested in Israeli counterterrorism know-how and in doing business with Israel’s high-tech sector, a means of diversifying its economy, which is currently dominated by exports of hydrocarbons.
Some 70% of the country’s 18 million residents are Muslim. Starting January 1, Kazakhstan — the ninth-largest country in the world — will assume a two-year position as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It traditionally follows the lead of its top ally, Russia, in supporting pro-Palestinian resolutions, something Netanyahu is expected to try to revert.
Visits by Israeli leaders to non-Arab Muslim-majority countries are rare.
Netanyahu briefly visited Azerbaijan in 1997, during his first term as prime minister, becoming the first Israeli leader to visit the country. No sitting prime minister has ever been to Kazakhstan.
In 2009, then-president Shimon Peres went to both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, becoming the first Israeli head of state to visit those countries since Jerusalem established diplomatic relations with them. In 1993, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu will meet with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev at Baku’s Zagulba Palace, where officials from both countries will sign bilateral agreements and make statements. After lunch with Aliyev, Netanyahu will lay a wreath at Şəhidlər Xiyabanı, or Martyrs Lane, a memorial dedicated to Azeris killed by the Soviets during the 1990 January Massacre and the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which lasted from 1988 to 1994.
Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia have warred for years over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but ruled by Armenian separatists. Fighting between the two sides flared up earlier this year. Armenian forces claimed Baku deployed Israeli-made kamikaze drones in a battle against Armenian “volunteers.”
“We certainly support the people of Azerbaijan,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman reportedly said at the time. “Azerbaijani leadership behaves in a balanced manner.”
After his visit at Martyrs Lane, the prime minister will visit the Ohr Avner Jewish educational complex, operated by the Chabad movement, where he is scheduled to meet with representatives of Azerbaijan’s Jewish community.
It is estimated that more than 20,000 Jews live in Azerbaijan. Most of them reside in the capital, while smaller communities exist in the Guba region and elsewhere. Most famous among these is Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Town), which used to be thought of as the largest Jewish locality outside Israel with 18,000 residents, but currently only about 1,000 Jews live there.
On Tuesday evening, Netanyahu will leave Azerbaijan and head to Astana, where on Wednesday morning he is set to meet with Kazakhstan’s longtime leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the iconic Akorda presidential palace. The two leaders will hold a working meeting and then attend a bilateral business forum.
Netanyahu will then meet the chairman of Kazakhstan’s Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, before heading to the Astana’s new Great Synagogue for a meeting with the local Jewish community.
It is estimated that between 12,000 and 30,000 Jews live in Kazakhstan. Most of them reside in country’s former capital Almaty.
Netanyahu, who will be accompanied by Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, will conclude his visit Wednesday with a business forum in Astana before heading home Thursday morning.
“Apart from expanding ties with the moderate part of the Muslim world, the visit will provide a unique opportunity to upscale the whole spectrum of bilateral relations with Kazakhstan and to move from mutual interests and cooperation ‘ad hoc’ to strategic partnership in the political and economic spheres,” Israel’s ambassador to Kazakhstan, Michael Brodsky, wrote in the Astana Times last week.
In the early 1990s, Israel rushed to recognize the newly independent states in Central Asia in a bid to make friends in the Muslim world, to reconnect with the region’s Jewish communities and to “create alternatives for our energy market,” Brodsky wrote. “However, much of the potential, especially in the economic field, has remained largely undiscovered.
Low oil prices and a declining demand for hydrocarbons are worrying Astana, which could use “Israeli expertise and technologies” to boost the country’s economic growth and to further Nazarbayev’s efforts to diversify the economy, the Israeli diplomat noted.
Furthermore, Kazakhstan and recently been the target of terror attacks, which triggered the government’s increased interest in Israel’s counterterrorism expertise. “Israel can potentially become a training hub for security and counterterrorism units from Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries, which are facing growing activities by ISIS and other terrorist groups on their territory and are struggling to prevent infiltration of extremists from neighboring Afghanistan,” Brodsky wrote. (Jerusalem Post)
PA ministers secretly hope there won’t be Palestinian state, deputy minister claims
There are ministers in the Palestinian Authority secretly hoping that a Palestinian state won’t be established, Deputy Minister of Regional Cooperation Ayoub Kara said on Sunday night.
“I sit with ministers in the Palestinian Authority, and they are pleading that there won’t be a Palestinian state,” Kara, who leads Israel’s diplomatic efforts to strengthen relations with its regional neighbors, claimed. He did not specify which ministers he spoke with.
There are currently no Palestinian Authority ministers on record who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The deputy minister’s statements came during the annual “Zionist Conference for Human Rights,” organized by the right-wing organization, Im Tirtzu, which battles what it sees as delegitimization of Israel.
During this year’s conference, the fourth in the group’s history, Im Tirtzu aimed to highlight Israel’s “integration of minorities,” meaning the mostly Arabic-speaking non-Jewish community, who comprise around 20 percent of Israel’s population.
Kara, who is a Druze citizen of Israel and a long-time member of the ruling Likud party, maintained “Israel is a paradise, without the 72 virgins, for all Arabs in Israel – and even in the Palestinian Authority,” to the applause and laughter of the around 200 people in attendance.
“In no other place in the Middle East are minorities growing,” Kara said.
The deputy minister also heaped praise on to one of the conference’s main guests, Father Gabriel Naddaf, who in recent years has campaigned for Christians in Israel to join the Israeli army.
Christians in Israel make up just 2 percent of the population.
Regardless of religion, for Israeli Arabs – who are exempted by law from military service – deciding to join the IDF is very much a taboo.
“The Jewish State will [continue] to exist only if we defend it together,” said Naddaf Sunday night to much applause.
Naddaf concluded his remarks by reading a letter from a Christian girl from the Arab-Israeli town of Nazareth who wanted to enlist in the army.
“If they claim that Israel is an occupier, than its occupation in contrast to other occupations is paradise. And just like they attack it, I will fight for [Israel’s] sake, because I would like that the land of our forefathers will once again be liberated from the real occupiers,” Naddaf said the girl had written.
Naddaf, who was one of the ceremonial torch-lighters at the state’s Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem this past May, was recently accused of sexually harassing young people he helped enlist in the military.
The priest has dismissed the claims as an “evil plot” by jealous enemies. “God will punish these people for harming me, my wife and my two sons who are serving now in the military,” Naddaf wrote on Facebook when the allegations surfaced.
The Im Tirtzu conference centered around the screening of “My Home,” a documentary the group says explores the strong connection of the “silent Arab minority” to the State of Israel.
The documentary features Kara and Naddaf, as well as two others who spoke at Sunday’s conference, Mohammad Kabiya, a Muslim-Bedouin who served in the IDF, and Jonathan Elkhoury, a Lebanese Christian who immigrated to Israel in
2000 after Israel allowed members of the South Lebanese Army to seek refuge in the Jewish state following Jerusalem’s decision to leave southern Lebanon.
In the documentary, the speakers’ affinity towards Israel is contrasted with opposition to Israeli policies by Arab-Israel lawmakers, especially Joint
(Arab) List members Hanin Zoabi and Ahmad Tibi.
The Im Tirtzu conference did not feature any non-Bedouin Muslim Arab-the community that makes up the majority of Israel’s Arabic-speaking population. (the Times of Israel)
Moving embassy to Jerusalem a ‘big priority’ for Trump – top aide
Donald Trump’s campaign promise to order the American embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a “very big priority” for the president-elect, top aide Kellyanne Conway said Monday.
“That is very big priority for this president-elect, Donald Trump,” Conway told radio host Hugh Hewitt in a lengthy interview discussing Trump’s transition to the White House. “He made it very clear during the campaign, and as president-elect, I’ve heard him repeat it several times privately, if not publicly.”
During the 2016 election, Trump pledged to end a longstanding White House policy to perpetually defer a 1995 Congressional decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move the embassy there.
“It is something that our friend Israel, a great friend in the Middle East, would appreciate and something that a lot of Jewish-Americans have expressed their preference for,” Conway said. “It is a great move. It is an easy move to do based on how much he talked about that in the debates and in the soundbites.”
She went on to say that Trump’s commitment to Israel would be an integral aspect of his administration’s policies, along with the domestic agendas that he emphasized in his campaign.
“People think it’s just marriage, abortion or religious liberties, and of course its about all that, but it’s also about a strong Middle East and about protecting Israel,” she said. “Evangelical Christians always have Israel at the top of their list when you ask what’s most important to them.”
Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama renewed a presidential waiver that again delayed plans to relocate the embassy for another six months.
In keeping with every other presidential administration over the last 20 years, Obama cited “national security interests” in waiving Congress’s 1995 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy there.
Every president since Bill Clinton has cited national security in presidential waivers signed every six months that have postponed the embassy’s relocation.
The US has been reluctant to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel, and the CIA World Factbook notes that ” while Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950, the international community does not recognize it as such; the US, like all other countries, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv-Yafo.”
The most often cited argument against Washington recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and moving its embassy, is that such a move should only come after the successful conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The status of Jerusalem is subject to bilateral negotiations, diplomats generally argue, and relocating the embassy as a gesture to Israel before a final-status agreement is signed would greatly anger Palestinians and the larger Arab world, sending an already moribund peace process to its certain death.
But Trump, who campaigned with the promise to do things differently, could throw the longstanding policy out of the window.
During a March address to AIPAC, Trump said he intended to “move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” In a television interview that month Trump assured the move would happen “fairly quickly.”
However, shortly after Trump’s November 8 victory, Walid Phares, one of his foreign policy advisers, appeared to walk back the pledge to relocate the embassy.
“Many presidents of the United States have committed to do that, and he said as well that he will do that, but he will do it under consensus,” Phares said, causing some confusion. He later clarified that he meant “consensus at home,” yet what he means by that is still somewhat murky, as there is broad bipartisan support in Congress for moving the embassy.
Earlier this year, Republican senators proposed legislation that would force the president to change the longstanding policy and move the US embassy. The proposed legislation strikes the language in the 1995 Embassy Act that allows the delay for national security reasons. (the Times of Israel)
F-35 stealth fighter jets arrive in Israel
At 8:16 p.m. Monday, Israel’s newest and most advanced weapon – two F-35 stealth fighter jets – known by its Hebrew name Adir, or mighty) – touched down at Nevatim Air Base near Beersheba, after its departure late afternoon from Italy was delayed six hours due to fog.
According to the IDF, security officials in both countries deemed it safer to wait until weather conditions improved before sending the fighter jets to Israel, on the last leg of their voyage to Israel.
A welcoming ceremony which was set to start at 2 p.m.It began instead at 7:30, with grateful thousands of attendees, including President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and US Ambassador Dan Shapiro.
Rivlin addressed the crowd first, saying that the “over 22 tons of flying steel will change the Middle East, and will redefine Israel’s deterrence capabilities and operational space.”
Israel, he said, knows “with confidence” that this plane will play an integral part in the air force, because “in our region, you cannot be the first among equals – you must establish a strategic advantage over enemy countries.”
He thanked the pilots and also Lt.-Col. Yotam, the squadron commander and the first Israeli set to fly the new jet on Tuesday.
Rivlin said that the “stealth fighters and pilots will be able to operate in every arena, near and far. The aircraft will change the rules of the game. Our enemies already know that it’s not worthwhile to harm Israel.”
Following Rivlin, Netanyahu thanked US President Barack Obama, Congress, and the American people because, he said, Israel “was just made stronger today. I want to be clear: Anyone who thinks of attacking us will be attacked. History has taught us that only strength brings deterrence, only strength brings peace and respect,” Netanyahu told the crowd.
Addressing Carter, Netanyahu said that his presence at the ceremony “is a sign of both your personal commitment and the commitment of the United States” to Israel, who is “your best friend in the Middle East, and personally I think, beyond the Middle East.”
Israel’s goal, Netanyahu said, “is to obtain supremacy in every theater: in the air, in the sea, on the ground and in the cyber world. Israel is taking off to new heights, and when our pilots in the Adir jets will fly high, we will watch them with pride.”
Secretary of Defense Carter, visiting Israel on a two-week global tour, said that “there’s no better symbol of that relationship than the F-35,” adding that the “many threats that face Israel everyday from many directions” are part of the reason why the US and Israel have such close ties.
“The United States will continue to provide Israel with the most advanced capabilities, including more F-35s to sharpen Israel’s military qualitative edge. With the turmoil in the region, we are more dedicated than ever before to Israel’s security, and America’s pledge to defend Israel’s security remains unwavering.
“As of today, Israel is our only friend in the region flying the F-35 – the F-35s will help the US and Israel air forces operate more jointly and more effectively. And together, we will dominate the skies.”
As Israel awaited the arrival of the planes, US President-elect Donald Trump said that he would completely reevaluate the costly aircraft program once he takes office on January 20.
Trump tweeted that the cost of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program is too high, and that he would shave billions from the project once he takes office.
“The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Trump said on Twitter. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20.”
Responding to criticism from Trump, a company executive in Israel said Lockheed Martin had spent large sums of money to reduce the price of the F-35 stealth fighter program.
“Since the beginning, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce the price of the airplane by about 70 percent since its original costing, and we project it to be about 85 million dollars in the 2019 or 2020 time frame,” said Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program leader.
If Trump decides to cut the number of aircraft the US Air Force purchases, it would mean an increase in the cost per aircraft for Israel. It would also put into question Israel’s decision to align its air force’s future with the F-35.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post while waiting for the F-35s, Jack Crisler, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 business development and strategic integration, said that the stealth technology “is our ability to deny our enemy the capability to detect, track and engage us. So we can go anywhere we want, at our choosing and prosecute a mission.”
Israel is the first country to receive the F-35 outside the United States. (Jerusalem Post)
After fire and accusations of arson Arabs and Jews rebuild Haifa together
Three weeks after fires engulfed large parts of Haifa and accusations of Arab-led arson attacks circulated in the media, Arabs and Jews sat at the Humus Abu Marwan restaurant in downtown Haifa showing little concern for ethnic or religious differences.
“I think some of the fires were caused by people who don’t like Jews, but everything is exaggerated in politics and the media,” said Gilad Kaufman,
37, an engineering student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is very good at speaking with emotion. But this is only to separate the nations.”
Over the last weekend, residents from Haifa and around country descended upon the city for its second annual Arab food festival, only weeks after Israel’s fire disaster and the resulting arson accusations strained Arab-Jewish relations.
Speaking to a group of journalists on Thursday, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said he rarely talks about coexistence, because Haifa is a “sane” city where coexistence is the norm. He said he was not interested if there were any acts of arson or not.
“I never asked and I don’t care,” he said, adding, “Nobody dares to point a finger at the local Palestinian population.”
“We live in a community where Muslim, Christian and Jews live together, so regardless if Arabs actually did it or not, nothing is going to change,” Haifa Mayor’s Office spokesman Or Doron said. “We will still live together.”
Sheikh Rashad Abu Alhaija of Haifa’s Great Mosque said if an Israeli-Arab did commit arson, he should be “punished to the fullest extent.” However, he said, the arson accusations were leveled against the Israeli-Arab community “because it is easier for people to blame the Arabs than to take responsibility for the fires.”
In Haifa, during the fires, Netanyahu said, “We are facing the terrorism of arsonists.” At the same time, Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted, “Only he to whom the land doesn’t belong is capable of burning it.” Meanwhile, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed that almost 50% of the fires were caused by arson.
Police are still investigating a number of fires as possible arson, including in Haifa. However, only three indictments against six Israeli-Arabs have been filed for involvement in minor fires, not the major blazes that caused extensive damage to Haifa and Zichron Ya’acov.
From November 19-28, there were approximately 2,600 brush fires and 1,800 urban fires throughout the country. The overwhelming majority were minor, needing only one firetruck to extinguish them.
Haifa’s dense vegetation led to massive fires that overtook parts of the city. “I don’t know any other city where the nature so strongly penetrates the urban fabric,” Haifa city engineer Ariel Waterman told a group of reporters as he looked over the burnt hillside of the Romema neighborhood. The fire led to over 500 apartments being damaged and displaced 1,700 people.
The city hopes to prevent the next fire disaster by changing vegetation and instituting new regulations.
Wooden awnings, which proved to be highly flammable, will be banned in certain areas, and many of Haifa’s famous trees will be uprooted.
“We are taking down trees that are too close to buildings,” Waterman said, adding that trees should be 15 meters away from structures. “It sounds easy, but in peacetime when there is no fire, people don’t like taking trees down.”
One building that was effected was a Romema neighborhood kindergarten, one of 52 kindergartens evacuated during the fire.
“A lot of children have regressed, it was psychologically damaging,” Shifra Anteby, head of Haifa Municipality kindergarten department, said while standing in the burnt rubble of the classroom. “What do we tell them, how do we speak about [the fire]?” A group of Israeli-Arab construction workers who were working to rebuild the kindergarten said not much has changed for them since the fire.
“There’s always extremists on both sides, maybe it’s around 10%,” Maisara Abed al Nabi said. “But they will always be there. We will continue as normal.” (Jerusalem Post)
British PM hails ‘remarkable, tolerant’ Israel, slams anti-Semitism in Labour
In a speech overflowing with praise and support, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday hailed the State of Israel as “a remarkable country” and “a beacon of tolerance,” said UK ties with Israel were “crucial,” promised to raise the bilateral trade relationship to new heights, and described the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most important letters in history.”
In an address to her Conservative Party’s Friends of Israel, May also castigated the opposition Labour Party for “turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism.”
The speech at a CFI luncheon, which received a standing ovation from the
800 guests, underlined May’s ongoing support of Israel, maintaining the approach of successive Conservative prime ministers – and contrasting with the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, a relentless critic of the Jewish state.
As the UK forges “a new role for itself on the world stage,” in the wake of its decision to leave the European Union, May said it would seek to be “open, outward-looking, optimistic” and that “Israel will be crucial to us as we do that.” This, she said, was “because I believe our two countries have a great deal in common. As the (Israeli) ambassador Mark Regev said, we have common values; we work together, on health, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, technology; and we can help each other achieve our aims.”
May firmly rebutted the so-called BDS movement against Israel, declaring: “I couldn’t be clearer: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is wrong, it is unacceptable, and this party and this government will have no truck with those who subscribe to it.”
She said she planned to “take our trading and investing relationship with Israel to the next level,” and noted that several ministers would visit Israel in the coming year.
Ahead of 2017’s centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which paved the way for the establishment of modern Israel, May said the UK was entering a “special time,” and highlighted that the Declaration was signed by a Conservative foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour. “It is one of the most important letters in history,” she declared. “It demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. And it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride.”
Addressing concerns about anti-Semitism in the UK, the prime minister said it “has no place in politics and no place in this country. It is unacceptable that there is anti-Semitism in this country. It is even worse that incidents are reportedly on the rise. And it is disgusting that these twisted views are being found in British politics.”
May announced that the UK was now adopting an internationally backed charity’s formal definition of anti-Semitism in a “ground-breaking step towards eradicating anti-Semitism.” (The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s, IHRA, an intergovernmental organization backed by 31 countries, agreed to a definition in May it hopes will become widely adopted globally.)
This move, she said, means that “there will be one definition of anti-Semitism – in essence, language or behavior that displays hatred towards Jews because they are Jews. And anyone guilty of that will be called out on it.”
In reference to Labour Party Deputy Leader Tom Watson, who recently sang ‘Am Yisrael Hai’ (The People of Israel Live) at a Labour Friends of Israel lunch, May said “no amount of karaoke can make up for turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism.” She added: “No matter what Labour say – or sing – they cannot ignore what has been happening in their party.”
Unlike Corbyn, Watson is a staunch supporter of Israel, and recently visited at the head of a Labour Friends delegation.
May called Israel a “remarkable country,” and elaborated: “We have, in Israel, a thriving democracy, a beacon of tolerance, an engine of enterprise, and an example to the rest of the world about how to overcome adversity and defying disadvantages”.
Recalling her visit to Israel in 2014 as home secretary, she said that “seeing isn’t just believing; it is understanding, acknowledging and appreciating. It is only when you walk through Jerusalem or Tel Aviv that you see a country where people of all religions and sexualities are free and equal in the eyes of the law. It is only when you travel across the country that you realize it is only the size of Wales – and appreciate even more the impact it has on the world.”
She added: “And it is only when you witness Israel’s vulnerability that you see the constant danger Israelis face, as I did during my visit, when the bodies of the murdered teenagers, Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, were discovered.”
May noted with pleasure that CFI has “already taken 34 of the 74 Conservative MPs elected in 2015 to Israel.”
Turning to the recent decision to freeze a portion of aid that Britain gives to the Palestinian Authority pending an investigation into allegations that the PA is paying salaries to convicted Palestinian terrorists, May promised that “no British taxpayers’ money will be used to make payments to terrorists or their families.” Every penny of aid must be “spent in the right places and in the right way.”
She said the UK was also looking into allocating greater funds for peaceful coexistence projects in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Regarding the peace process, May said the way to achieve a two-state solution is for “the two sides to sit down together, without preconditions.”
She also praised the UK’s Jewish community: “We should be so proud of the contribution Britain’s Jewish community’s made to our country. From business to the arts, public services to education, that contribution is exemplary,” she said. (the Times of Israel)
Rivlin welcomes new Turkish ambassador: ‘A real moment in history’
After years of bad blood, Israel once again has a Turkish ambassador; Israeli President Reuven Rivlin greets the new Ambassador Mekin Mustafa Kemal Ökem, saying, ‘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.’
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 Erdogan agreed to mend ties after a six-year frost.
Erdogan 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 Israeli Navy on board the Mavi Marmara floatilla during an attempt to break through Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Erdogan recalled Turkey’s ambassador and expelled Israel’s representative to Turkey in response.
In accepting Ökem’s credentials, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said, “Mr. Ambassador, today is an honor, and a real moment in history. I want to express my appreciation to President Erdogan, 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, said that the decision to exchange the ambassadors was “a positive sign of the determination of both sides to move ahead with the normalization process.” (Ynet News)
Coin dating from Jewish revolt against the Romans found in Jerusalem
The back of the ancient coin reads “Two years to the Great Revolt.”
Israeli cabinet meetings are not usually devoted to archaeological matters, but on Sunday Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev showed her fellow ministers a “Free Zion” coin dating from the period of the Jewish revolt against the Romans, found by one of her advisers in the City of David in Jerusalem.
The back of the coin bears an inscription reading “Two years to the Great Revolt,” which dates it to the year 67 C.E., three years before the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple.
Regev also presented plans by the Ministerial Committee on Ceremonies and Symbols to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation and reunification of Jerusalem, which will take place in June 2017.
Regev said that during the Hanukkah holiday later this month, her ministry and the Israel Antiquities Authority would reveal another ancient street in Jerusalem, “the street the Maccabees trod 2,000 years ago.”
According to Regev, the street in question was a main thoroughfare in ancient Jerusalem, and the shops that lined it have also been excavated. The street is named Olei Haregel (“The Pilgrims”), after the Jews who used it to ascend to the Temple Mount from Shiloah Pool.
“I see this project of excavating the Old City, of continued excavations in the Old City, as a national project,” Regev said. (Israel Hayom)