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Israeli president plans rare visit to Turkey: office

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Israeli President Isaac Herzog is preparing to visit Turkey in a rare trip that marks the latest sign of a thaw following years of frayed ties, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Herzog’s office on Tuesday.

A statement from Herzog’s office said that a high-ranking Turkish delegation was due in Israel this week, including İbrahim Kalın, a top aide to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal.

The Turkish delegation’s visit was “part of preparations for the planned visit of President Isaac Herzog” to Turkey, the Israeli presidency said.

In a television interview last month, Erdoğan said he expected Herzog to visit, hailing the trip as an opportunity to “open a new chapter in relations between Turkey and Israel.”

Herzog’s office had declined to comment on the prospective trip until Tuesday’s statement, which gave no indication of a possible date.

Turkey’s state-run TRT television reported the trip would take place on March 9 and 10.

Relations between majority-Muslim Turkey and Israel froze over after the death of 10 civilians in an Israeli raid on a Turkish flotilla carrying aid for the Gaza Strip in 2010.

In recent months, however, the two countries have been working on a rapprochement, with Erdoğan, a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause, holding telephone talks with Herzog and other Israeli leaders.

‘Easier’ person

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a Turkey specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said hosting Herzog amounted to a “U-turn” for Erdoğan as there has been no “major change in Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.”

She and other analysts have linked the warming ties partly to former Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster from office in June. Relations between Netanyahu and Erdoğan had grown bitter during their respective long tenures.

“I think definitely the formation of a new government after a long time of Netanyahu in power is seen as a new opportunity,” she told AFP last week.

Netanyahu was replaced by an ideologically diverse Israeli coalition headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-winger who opposes Palestinian statehood.

Herzog, former head of Israel’s center-left Labor Party, is seen as more moderate on Palestinian issues, and therefore an “easier person to deal with” for Erdoğan, Lindenstrauss added.

A Turkish statement confirming the delegation’s visit this week said Kalın and Önal would also meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Authority based in the occupied West Bank.

Turkey also has ties with Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Lindenstrauss said that Israel would likely seek an end to Hamas “logistical and military planning on Turkish soil” as part of any enhanced diplomatic relationship with Ankara.

Israel is also stepping up its diplomatic efforts over Iran’s nuclear program, as major powers continue talks with Tehran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, a pact the Jewish state strongly opposes.

Any cooperation against arch foe Iran from Turkey would be a boon for Israel, Lindenstrauss said, but voiced “doubt this will happen,” given the close and complex ties between Ankara and Tehran.

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