A delegation of Israeli mayors recently took part in a convention in Turkey with their Turkish colleagues with the goal of restoring relations between the two countries.
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"I'm happy to see so many Israelis sitting in one room because for the last two years we haven't had this many Israelis in one room," declared one Turkish mayor.
The extraordinary convention was initiated by the Turkish side after intensive talks with the director of diplomatic relations at the Union of Local Authorities in Israel.
The Mayor of Rosh HaAyin Moshe Sinai led the Israeli delegation which included, among others, the Mayor of Sderot David Buskila whose city has been making headlines in the Turkish media. The delegation also included local council heads of Arab towns like Abu Ghosh.
The meet was sponsored by Europe's COPPEM organization which is responsible for expanding cooperation between Mediterranean countries through social projects and unofficial get-togethers between countries who don't share diplomatic relations.
"We believe that Israel and Turkey can re-build a joint connection with the goal of strengthening relations between the two countries," the organization's Secretary General Carmelo Motta said at the opening of the convention, "it is important to create trust specifically between municipal leaders so that relations between nations begin from the foundations."
The mayoral convention was held a week and a half after Prime Minister Erdogan's sweeping victories in Turkey's general elections. Israeli concerns over the possibility that Turkey would change its secular character led the Turkish representative to explain and emphasize that the election results would not change their country's identity.
The delegations (Photo: Elior Levy)
"The two sides see a distorted image. Turkey isn't changing its character in the direction of extremism and Islamization" the director of diplomatic relations at the Marmaris municipality noted. "We must erase the damages inflicted by politicians through tourism" he added.
"Any Israeli can visit Turkey with complete confidence," added the head of the Turkish delegation and Mayor of Turunç Ali Fidan who also stressed that "you need to know that the IHH organization represents only a minute percentage of Turks, it doesn't represent the majority of the population."
'Create our own reality'
The city of Marmaris is proof positive of his statements. The holiday town is completely secular with many stores selling alcohol and pictures and statues of Kemal Atatürk, the man behind Turkey's secular revolution, at every corner.
Yet in spite of these statements, the goal of the special convention wasn't to get Israeli tourists to come back to Turkey, rather it was intended to rebuild relations between the two countries, relations that deteriorated following Operation Cast Lead and reached an all time low following the events surrounding the Gaza flotilla over a year ago.
During the meetings the sides signed a Letter of Understanding where among other things, the two sides agreed to hold youth exchange programs, to have a Turkish delegation film a documentary about Israel as the guests of the Sapir College in southern Israel and holding joint cultural and culinary festivals beginning next year.
"We have come here to strengthen relations with the Turkish people and we must not let the reality defeat us. We need to create our own reality," the head of the Israeli delegation told his Turkish colleagues."
Summing up the conference the mayor of Sderot said: "When we are here we comprehend that Turkey is completely different from what we have been led to believe but it is important that the feeling be mutual.
The director of diplomatic relations at the Marmaris municipality added: "I have to admit that from our perspective, this meeting exceeded our expectations. Even though this meeting is unofficial we have managed to define joint expectations. If nothing dramatic occurs to further worsen relations between the countries, we believe Israeli tourists will return to Turkey as early as 2012".
Meanwhile it would seem that in spite of the fact that the Turkish economy doesn't lean on Israeli tourism, Turkey still misses its Israeli tourists. "We love your people very much, it is a shame you no longer come here," one Marmaris store owner said with sadness.
The writer was a guest of the Union of Local Authorities
Elior Levy is Ynet's Palestinian affairs correspondent
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