‘Turkish Betrayal’ Is the Talk of Israel

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Umit Bektas / Reuters

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Turkish parliament in Ankara in June 2013.

Israeli newspapers were dominated Friday morning by a Washington Post report that Turkey betrayed Israeli spies to Iran.  “Turkey Blows Israel’s Cover for Iranian Spying Ring, “ was the headline on columnist David Ignatius’  Thursday piece, quoting “knowledgeable sources” who described how the Turkish government disclosed to Iran the identities of 10 Iranians who had been meeting in Turkey with Israeli intelligence case officers. The Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth noted a “thunderous silence” from the Israeli government in its article, headlined “The Turkish Betrayal” and including numerous quotes from unidentified officials reinforcing the premise of the story.  The Post column followed an Oct. 10 Wall Street Journal profile of Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, that included a broader charge that he had passed Israeli secrets to Iran.

Turkey’s foreign ministry dismissed the reports as a “smear campaign” intended to further damage Turkey’s fraught relations with Israel, which Ignatius is in a position to appreciate better than most.  He was the moderator at the 2009 World Economic Forum panel featuring Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres, when Erdogan pulled off his microphone and stormed off the stage over the 2008-2009 conflict in Gaza. “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” Erdogan told Peres.

Beyond tightening tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem, the new reports also add to the narrative of the secret war between Israel and Iran that has been emerging in bits and pieces.  In January 2012, intelligence sources acknowledged to TIME that a young man who appeared on Iranian state television in 2011 confessing he had been working for the Mossad, had, in fact, been an asset for the Israeli intelligence agency. The chagrined intelligence officials said 24-year-old Majid Jamali Fashi, who was executed in May 2012 as a “Mossad spy”, had been betrayed to Iran’s security services by a third country, which TIME did not identify.   A subsequent Israeli investigation concluded that Turkey had not overtly identified the Mossad agents, but rather permitted them to be discovered by Iranian state security, either by possibly through their movements between Iran and Turkey, according to an intelligence official.

Three months after Fashi was hanged, the Iranian government paraded another 14 Iranians on primetime television, all describing their roles in the assassinations of scientists involved in Iran’s nuclear program. Iran blames the killings on the Mossad – and correctly so, Western intelligence officials said. The officials acknowledged the loss of more operatives, Iranian nationals paid to provide logistics and other support for the Mossad operation. The officials said the assassinations were intended both to deter Iranian scientists from joining the nuclear effort, and as part of a broader covert campaign aimed at delaying Iran’s program. Before scaling back the level of covert operations later in 2012, Israel’s secret campaign ranged from silent attacks such as the Stuxnet computer virus, to very loud ones, like the massive Nov. 2011 blast at a missile base outside Tehran, which intelligence officials acknowledged to was Israeli sabotage.

Iran attempted again and again to strike back at Israel, in a fast-moving  “shadow war” that involved attempts on the lives of Israeli diplomats and expatriates, from Bangkok to Baku to Nairobi.  But it did not fare well. The Israelis or other governments thwarted every attack until July 2012, when agents of Hizballah – which Iran created and has a history of partnering with in terror attacks – bombed a bus in the Bulgarian resort of Burgas,  killing five Israeli tourists, a Bulgarian bus driver and a Hizballah operative who may not have meant to die.