Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed a new foreign minister last week, following his reelection in May. Hakan Fidan, the former head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), became Turkey’s first chief diplomat, after a background in intelligence and defense.
As such, Fidan has played a key role in relations between Ankara and Jerusalem for many years and “had connections with Israeli intelligence leadership even in times of tension between the countries,” said Nimrod Goren, president of Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
Beyond that, Fidan “led the moves to improve relations between Israel and Turkey” in recent years, Goren said. “He was involved in security strategy since Erdogan entered office. He dealt with all of the central issues with Turkey’s relations in the region. He has the trust of the president, and great experience and knowledge.”
Foundation for Ethnic Understanding President Rabbi Marc Schneier, a confidant of President Isaac Herzog, who played a role in the recent Turkey-Israel rapprochement, said that “Fidan was directly involved in discussions with Israeli intelligence on several issues, including concerns Israelis have about Hamas operations in Turkey. He is very aware and very sensitive to Israeli concerns about terrorist groups in the region.
“Erdogan genuinely wants to build a relationship with Israel,” Schneier concluded. In that way, Fidan is “in a place to be of help.”
Turkey's new foreign minister and what he means for Israel
Dr. Mark Meirowitz, a professor at SUNY Maritime, said that “Fidan’s access to and close relationship with President Erdogan will be vitally important in promoting diplomacy and hopefully greatly improved relations between Turkey and Israel going forward…[Fidan] has the background and experience which will be conducive to markedly improving this bilateral relationship.”
When Fidan became the head of MIT in 2010, then defense minister Ehud Barak expressed concern that close ties between Fidan and Iran could mean that he would leak sensitive information about Israel to Tehran. Turkey summoned Israel’s ambassador to Ankara to complain about the remark.
Goren pointed out that such statements have not been heard in the ensuing years. Fidan “has gained trust” in Israel, Goren said. “There are doubts about everyone connected to Erdogan, but intelligence-sharing has proved itself, and it worked well, because Turkey chose to strengthen relations with Israel,” he stated.
When it comes to his relations with Hamas, Iran and other proxies in the region, “Erdogan is consistent,” Schneier said. “He doesn’t apologize for the relationships he has. Therefore, he says Israel should reach out to see how he can help and be an intermediary to try to sensitize the other side.”
When it comes to Israel-Turkey relations, Meirowitz said, “back channel activities are and will continue to be essential, but what will really count is improving the relationship between Turkey and Israel outwardly in front of the entire world.
“The new foreign minister of Turkey should focus on the value-added of the important bilateral relationship between Turkey and Israel,” Meirowitz said, adding that “a better Turkish-Israeli relationship will help Turkey to improve relations with the US.”
Advances in that vein in recent years were Herzog’s meeting with Erdogan in Ankara in March 2022 and Israeli humanitarian efforts in Turkey after the earthquake in February of this year. Moving forward, Meirowitz recommended that Foreign Minister Eli Cohen discuss with Fidan cooperation on fighting terrorism, the danger of a nuclear Iran, and energy cooperation to reduce tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and more.
Perhaps most importantly, Meirowitz suggested that Jerusalem and Ankara implement mechanisms so that there is not a diplomatic crisis every time there is a disagreement
Fidan was also a central figure in repairing Turkey’s relations with the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Goren said, which also serves Israel’s interests.
According to the pro-Erdogan Daily Sabah, Fidan’s appointment is the continuation of a restructuring of Turkey’s various security branches, which included bolstering MIT’s external intelligence operations and turning it into an important foreign policy actor.
Goren called this “the securitization of diplomacy, which happens with us in Israel, as well.” For example, former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi was foreign minister. Meirowitz pointed out that former CIA director Mike Pompeo became US Secretary of State.