Israeli president lands in Turkey aiming to restart ties

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Israel’s president landed in Ankara on Wednesday to meet Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the first visit by an Israeli head of state since 2007, as the countries seek to mend fractured ties, Agence France-Presse reported.

President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the Turkish capital and İstanbul was planned weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, but the conflict could feature at the talks, with both Israel and Turkey playing mediation roles in recent days.

But bilateral issues are likely to dominate following more than a decade of diplomatic rupture between the Jewish state and majority Muslim Turkey, a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause.

“We will not agree on everything, and the relationship between Israel and Turkey has certainly known ups and downs and not-so-simple moments in recent years,” Herzog said before departing.

“But we shall try to restart our relations and build them in a measured and cautious manner,” he added.

Major issues on the agenda for the two-day trip will likely include gas sales to Europe, a topic that has acquired added urgency amid the Ukraine conflict.

Relations froze after the death of 10 civilians following an Israeli raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship, part of a flotilla trying to breach a blockade by carrying aid into the Gaza Strip in 2010.

A 2016 reconciliation agreement that saw the return of ambassadors all but collapsed in 2018 in the wake of Gaza border clashes that killed dozens of Palestinians.

Turkey recalled its diplomats and ordered Israel’s envoy out of the country.

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP it was “quite likely” that the reappointment of ambassadors will be announced during Herzog’s trip.

‘Turning point’

The rapprochement began following Herzog’s inauguration in July. Israel’s presidency is a largely ceremonial role, but Herzog, a veteran of the left-wing Labor party, has taken on an outsized diplomatic role and has spoken to Erdoğan several times in recent months.

Israeli leaders were wary of Turkey’s outreach.

But Erdoğan’s move to secure the release of an Israeli couple arrested in İstanbul in November on espionage charges proved a “turning point”, said Gallia Lindenstrauss of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

The matter “essentially opened the opportunity for improved relations”, said Lindenstrauss, a senior researcher and Turkey expert.

Following the 2010 crisis, Israel created a strategic alliance with Greece and Cyprus — two states with long-standing acrimony towards Erdoğan’s Turkey — holding in recent years regular trilateral meetings and conducting joint military drills.

The trio were part of the “East Mediterranean Gas Forum” established in 2019 with other states, including Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories — without Turkey.

In 2020, Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed the EastMed deal for a pipeline to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, triggering objections from Ankara.

The United States has since also raised concern about the project, citing possible issues over its “commercial viability.”

For Turkey, that frustration over its exclusion from the gas talks — as well as an internal economic crisis, and a more confrontational US administration since President Joe Biden’s election — has pushed Ankara closer to Israel, Lindenstrauss said.

Ukraine, Greece, Cyprus

Israeli officials have said that Herzog and Erdoğan may discuss prospects of exporting Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey — a notion raised by Erdoğan in January — amid fears of impaired supply following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Regional ties also remain sensitive, and Herzog visited both Greece and Cyprus ahead of his Turkey trip to reassure the two Israeli allies.

“Certainly, at a time when the international order is being shaken, it is good and proper that stability and partnership be maintained in our region, and I emphasized this point during my visits to Greece and Cyprus in recent weeks,” Herzog said on the tarmac.

Lindenstrauss said that if Erdoğan’s Israel outreach “reflects more moderacy in Turkey’s foreign policy, it’s also good news for Greece and Cyprus”.

Herzog, who will hold bilateral talks with Erdoğan before a state dinner, will also meet members of the Jewish community in İstanbul on Thursday, before returning to Israel.

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