Erdogan meets with Israeli diplomat — a first in 6 years

Turkish president-elect shakes hands with chargé d’affaires despite scathing criticism of Jerusalem, most recently over Gaza war

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the parliament in Ankara, July 15, 2014  (photo credit: AFP/ADEM ALTAN)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the parliament in Ankara, July 15, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/ADEM ALTAN)

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president-elect, on Saturday shook the hand of an Israeli diplomatic official for the first time in six years, Channel 10 reported.

Erdogan, who won the presidency on August 10 after serving as prime minister for the previous 11 years, met and shook hands with Yosef Levi Sfari, the chargé d’affaires of Israel’s embassy in Ankara, during a reception with diplomats to mark Turkey’s Victory Day – a celebration of the nation’s independence.

Erdogan, who is expected to seek more power for his new, historically largely symbolic position, has avoided any direct contact with Israeli officials since 2008’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Saturday’s meeting with Levi Sfari was widely reported upon in the local press.

Diplomatic tensions between the nations deepened after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos stormed the Turkish-flagged ship, the largest in a flotilla dispatched by the Islamist IHH group. The soldiers were attacked by those on board, and several soldiers were injured. Nine Turks died in the raid and one more died in hospital this year after four years in a coma. The assault on the ship sparked widespread condemnation and provoked a major diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel.

Though relations between the two countries seemed to be warming up several months ago, with talk of an official Israeli apology and a reported agreement to pay reparations to the victims of the Marmara incident, ties took a turn for the worse following the recent conflagration in Gaza.

Over the course of Operation Protective Edge, the Turkish leader claimed Israel’s actions in Gaza were worse than what Adolf Hitler did to the Jews, said the Jewish state would “drown in blood” and accused it of committing genocide.

Erdogan also sought to position Turkey as a central mediator in the conflict, along with Qatar. Israel repeatedly rejected the two nations as mediators, seeing Egypt and the US as the only credible parties.

The 60-year-old Erdogan is revered by many in Turkey as a man of the people who ushered in a period of economic prosperity, but reviled by others as an increasingly autocratic leader trying to impose his religious and conservative views on a country with strong secular traditions.

His critics have accused him of running a heavily lopsided, unfair campaign, using the assets available to him through his office as prime minister to dominate media exposure and travel across the country. His office has rejected these claims.

Erdogan has vowed to transform the presidency from a largely ceremonial post into a powerful position — something his detractors say proves he is bent on a power grab. He has said he will activate the post’s rarely used dormant powers — a legacy of a 1980 coup — including the ability to call parliament and summon and preside over cabinet meetings.

Turkey’s ruling party has picked Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to replace Erdogan as its new chairman and prime minister.

AP and AFP contributed to this report.

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