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Herzog, Erdogan discuss possible meeting in phone call

The conversation marks the latest example of the warming relations between Jerusalem and Ankara

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and President Isaac Herzog (right). (AP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and President Isaac Herzog (right). (AP)

President Isaac Herzog spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday evening, ahead of a possible meeting between the two leaders and in the latest sign of the warming relations between the countries.

According to a press release issued by the President’s Office, Herzog wished Erdogan a speedy recovery after the Turkish president tested positive for COVID-19, together with his wife, the previous day.

Erdogan thanked Herzog for his concern about his well-being. The two leaders also discussed the possibility of meeting soon, the press release read.

The phone call represents 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 in recent months.

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.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (C) and Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiadis shake hands in Athens on January 2, 2020, ahead of the signing of an agreement for the EastMed pipeline project to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. (Aris Messins/ AFP)

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.

But despite Erdogan efforts, Israeli officials quoted by Haaretz last week said that better ties with Turkey would not come at the expense of Israel’s alliance with Greece and Cyprus, who were reportedly already aware of the possibility.

“These two countries did not express opposition to a warming of ties [with Turkey]. Israel made clear that security cooperation with them would continue and they themselves are advancing dialogue with Erdogan,” an official was cited as saying.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Composite/AP)

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.

Last week, an Israeli official quoted by Haaretz described the potential meeting between Herzog and Erdogan as an indicator of the Turkish president’s intentions.

“A meeting at the presidential level is … a tool that can be used,” he said. “The president is a symbolic figure, not a political one, and in any case, Herzog is conducting his own talks with the Turks. One can start with such a channel and then check the developments and implications, all at a slow pace.”

Erdogan has “demonstrated his seriousness” for advancing better relations with Israel in several ways, the official said, citing the release of Natali and Mordy Oknin, an Israeli tourist couple arrested in Turkey last year for alleged spying, and recent efforts to restrict Hamas activities in his country.

And in another symbolic attempt to signal his changing attitude toward the Jewish state, Erdogan hosted in late December a delegation of prominent rabbis from Jewish communities across Turkey at his presidential palace in Ankara.

During their visit, he spoke of the importance of improving relations with Israel, which he said were “vital for the security and stability of the region,” noting that despite differences with Israel over its policies toward Palestinians, Turkey’s “relations with Israel in the fields of economy, trade and tourism are progressing in their own way.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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