Berliner TageBlatt - Israel's president on landmark Turkey trip to 'restart' ties

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Israel's president on landmark Turkey trip to 'restart' ties
Israel's president on landmark Turkey trip to 'restart' ties / Foto: © AFP

Israel's president on landmark Turkey trip to 'restart' ties

Israel's president met with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Wednesday, in the first visit by an Israeli head of state to Turkey since 2007, as the countries seek to mend fractured ties.

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President Isaac Herzog's trip to the Turkish capital and Istanbul 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 may 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, before a boarding a plane with "Peace and cooperation" written in Turkish on its side.

After landing Herzog and Erdogan proceeded through an honour guard at the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk mausoleum, with Herzog writing an inscription that praised Turkey's first president as a "visionary leader" for choosing "the path of collaboration."

Relations between the two countries were frozen 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 has maintained strong relations with Hamas Islamists who control Gaza. Condemning the Herzog trip on Wednesday, Hamas reiterated its policy of rejecting "any form of communication with our enemy."

After the 2018 Gaza bloodshed, Turkey recalled its diplomats and ordered Israel's envoy out of the country.

Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP it was "quite likely" that the reappointment of ambassadors will be announced during the 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 Erdogan several times in recent months.

Israeli leaders were wary of Turkey's outreach.

But Erdogan's move to secure the release of an Israeli couple arrested in Istanbul in November on espionage charges proved a "turning point", said Gallia Lindenstrauss of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

The matter "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 Erdogan's Turkey -- holding regular meetings and 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.

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 Erdogan may discuss prospects of exporting Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey -- a notion raised by Erdogan 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.

"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 emphasised this point during my visits to Greece and Cyprus in recent weeks," Herzog said before departing.

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

L.Janezki--BTB