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Erdogan says Turkey seeking to mend troubled ties with Israel

After smoothing over tensions with the UAE, Turkish leader indicates detentes with Jerusalem and Cairo are next on his agenda, including the return of ambassadors

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at a press conference at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 17, 2021. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at a press conference at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 17, 2021. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

Turkey will take steps to improve relations with Israel similar to those taken with the UAE, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in comments published by Turkish media on Monday.

Ties between Turkey and the UAE were strained over regional issues, but Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s visit to Ankara last week thawed relations as the countries sealed multi-billion-dollar investments.

“Just as a step was taken between us and the United Arab Emirates, we will take similar steps with the others,” Erdogan told Turkish reporters on board his plane returning from a trip to Turkmenistan over the weekend, NTV broadcaster reported.

He suggested Turkish ambassadors could be sent back to both Egypt and Israel, and that ambassadors could be returned to both nations after years of chilly relations. “Now when we have made our decision, we will of course be in a position to appoint ambassadors within a defined schedule,” Erdogan said, without offering a timeline.

In 2018, Turkey ordered out Israel’s ambassador over the killing of protesters along the border with the Gaza Strip. Relations between Jerusalem and Ankara have been perennially strained, and Erdogan regularly makes disparaging comments about Israel.

Earlier this month, an Israeli couple was detained for a week in Turkey after being arrested for photographing Erdogan’s palace. The couple were accused of being Israeli spies, though Israel dismissed the charges as ludicrous, noting that they were merely vacationing bus drivers.

Israeli couple Mordi and Natali Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, are greeted upon their arrival home in Modiin on November 18, 2021 following their release. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

After more than a week of detention, Erdogan ordered the couple released and returned to Israel, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett thanked the Turkish leader for his “personal involvement” in freeing them.

Bennett also “commended the lines of communication between the two countries, which were efficient and discreet in a time of crisis.” The Prime Minister’s Office told AFP it was the first such contact between an Israeli prime minister and Erdogan since 2013.

Reports following the couple’s release indicated that Erdogan’s personal involvement in the incident could herald an improvement in ties between the two nations after years of tension.

But last week, Erdogan accused Israel of “oppressive” policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, including the alleged forced displacement of residents in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speak with Natali and Mordi Oknin after their return to Israel from Turkey, November 18, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)

“We must work with all our might to preserve the status and sanctity of Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine. The main thing is the establishment of lasting peace and stability on the basis of a two-state solution and established international parameters,” he said in a speech, according to local media reports.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, Erdogan also said during that speech that continued dialogue with Israel was in Turkey’s interest, and called for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Turkey and Egypt broke off relations after the 2013 overthrow of ex-Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who was supported by Erdogan. They expelled their respective ambassadors and downgraded their relations in 2013.

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