A senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official secretly visited Turkey last month ahead of a possible visit by President Isaac Herzog, according to a Wednesday report.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that Herzog will visit in March, and the two leaders spoke on Sunday, but there has been no confirmation from Israel that Herzog will visit Turkey.
Ties between the two countries appear to be thawing, as Erdogan has made a number of statements about possible cooperation with Israel in recent months.
Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz visited Turkey last month to prepare for a possible visit by Herzog, according to Ynet and Army Radio.
During the trip, he met with top Turkish official Ibrahim Kalin, who serves as a media consultant for Erdogan and is considered his right-hand man and adviser on diplomatic affairs, the report said.
Israel’s charge d’affaires in Ankara, Irit Lillian, reportedly has close ties with Kalin, who is said to have played a key role in the release of Natali and Mordy Oknin, an Israeli tourist couple arrested in Turkey last year on widely discredited spying charges. The couple was released after Herzog and other top officials intervened.
Ushpiz’s reported visit to Turkey would have been the first by a senior Israeli official in nearly six years. The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report.
Turkish media also reported that a Turkish official will soon make his way to Israel to prepare for a possible visit by Herzog.
Erdogan had previously stated to Turkish media that he will host Herzog for an official visit in mid-March amid efforts to revitalize once-strong relations between the two countries, but this was not confirmed and a spokesperson for Herzog had declined to comment on Erdogan’s announcement.
On Sunday, Herzog wished Erdogan a speedy recovery after the Turkish president tested positive for COVID-19 the previous day.
Erdogan thanked Herzog for his concern. The two leaders also discussed the possibility of meeting soon, a press release issued by the President’s Office said.
Ushpiz’s reported visit and the phone call represent a recent shift in Erdogan’s public policy toward Israel, with the Turkish president signaling a different approach and a desire to rekindle relations with Israel.
On Friday, Erdogan said that Turkey and Israel could work together to deliver natural gas from the Middle East to Europe, and the two countries would discuss energy cooperation during talks next month.
Turkey is currently being battered by an economic crisis, while Israel and a group of regional countries, including Turkey’s rival Greece, have been working on a joint pipeline to bring eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe, in a deal signed in January 2020.
Turkey has strongly opposed the project and staked its own territorial claims to the region’s energy wealth.
After the Biden administration dropped its support for the controversial gas pipeline last month, Erdogan indicated that he wanted Turkey to be involved in the import of Israeli gas to Europe, saying there had been “some progress” on the matter in the past, and suggesting a new project that would involve Ankara.
Once robust regional allies, Israel and Turkey saw their ties fray during Erdogan’s tenure, during which the Turkish leader has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
Israel has been upset by Erdogan’s warm relations with Hamas, the terror group that controls the Gaza Strip.
The countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces boarded a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for the Palestinians that attempted to break an Israeli blockade. Though most of the participating vessels were boarded without incident, those onboard a Turkish ferry boat violently resisted the Israeli action, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish activists.
Relations slowly improved but broke down again in 2018, after Turkey, angered by the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem, once more recalled its envoy from Israel, prompting Israel to reciprocate.
Turkish media reports said on Tuesday that 16 people went on trial in Istanbul on charges of “political and military” espionage on behalf of Israel.
The defendants, including Palestinians and Syrians, were arrested in October in an operation by Turkey’s national intelligence agency, MIT, according to the pro-government Sabah newspaper and other Turkish media. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.