Did Turkey Sell Out Israeli Agents To Iran?

Once, Israel and Turkey were covert allies but ties between the two countries have been shaky for a few years now. And Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported Thursday on a new twist in the complex relationship. Ignatius joins Robert Siegel to talk about the latest developments.

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Did Turkey sell out Israeli agents to Iran? Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reports today on a twist in the strained relations between Turkey and Israel. Ignatius writes about something that he says happened in early 2012. At the time, the Turks were still furious over the loss of life two years earlier, when Israeli commandoes had boarded a Turkish flotilla that was bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza.

David Ignatius joins us now to talk about this. Welcome to the program once again.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And tell us what happened early last year.

IGNATIUS: What happened early last year, according to my sources, is that Turkish intelligence passed along to Iranian intelligence the identities of some Iranians who had been meeting with Israeli intelligence as Israeli agents. Those meetings have taken place at least in part in Turkey, so the Turks are in a position to surveil them. And in effect, turned over these people who were later, I'm told, interrogated and the network that they'd been part of was essentially broken up by Iran. So it was a very damaging blow to Israeli efforts to know more about Iran and its weapons programs.

SIEGEL: Turkish government sources have been quoted denying this and saying that grouping this together is examples of black propaganda against Turkey.

IGNATIUS: Well, I'm always sorry to see stories I write denied but I've reported this from many different directions. Late last week, I began asking the Turkish Embassy in Washington for comment. So I've given them a long period in which to respond to me and they chose, after weighing it, to make no comment which is what I reflected in the piece.

SIEGEL: I want you to put this in some context here. Israel and Turkey had been for decades close, if covert, allies, when it came to intelligence and the relationship has been a lot rockier since Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been Turkey's moderate Islamist prime minister.

IGNATIUS: Turkey and Israel really had what amounted to a secret partnership starting in 1958. Their intelligence services shared a lot of information. They did the same thing with Iran, which is another covert ally that they had against the Arab States who are close - and Turkey is not an Arab country nor is Iran. When Erdogan became prime minister, he began in many ways trying to realign his policy so they were closer to the neighboring Arab states.

And a part of what happened is he became a champion of the Palestinian cause, was much greater distance from Israel. And I think what I was reporting was part of that larger story.

SIEGEL: A big question here is if, in fact, Turkish intelligence tipped off the Iranians to these - Iranians who were spying for Israel, was that a one-off punitive act by Turkey for the nine Gaza flotilla deaths? Or did it mark a much more serious reorientation of Turkey toward a different relationship with Iran, and a different relationship with Israel?

IGNATIUS: The answer is that I don't know. For me, after the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident where the nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandos who landed on the ships, the mystery was why it was so difficult for Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel to apologize, to kind of get over this breach. It was a very costly, damaging breach for Israel. I think I understand better now.

I think in Netanyahu's mind, the mind of many Israelis, this action that I disclosed in my column just infuriated people. And it made it that much harder to get over the incident. Netanyahu finally did make an apology in March. But I'm told the relationship between Israel and Turkey really isn't much better today than it was when that apology was finally made.

SIEGEL: David Ignatius, of The Washington Post, thanks for talking with us.

IGNATIUS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: David Ignatius, his column today in The Washington Post is headlined: Turkey Blows Israel's Cover for Iranian Spy Ring.

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