Herzog: Erdogan open to true dialogue, tie-building advancing ‘under no illusions’

President hopes trip to Turkey laid groundwork for better ties between two countries; visits Neve Shalom Synagogue, scene of deadly 1986 terror attack, before returning to Israel

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

President Isaac Herzog talks during a ceremony at Neve Shalom synagogue, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 10, 2022. (Emrah Gurel/AP)
President Isaac Herzog talks during a ceremony at Neve Shalom synagogue, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 10, 2022. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — In Turkey on an official visit, President Isaac Herzog said Thursday his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed a willingness to address a range of issues and that though there are challenges to repairing relations between the countries, there is a mutual interest in doing so.

Erdogan, he said in a briefing to Israeli reporters a day after his meetings with the Turkish president, has been “open to true dialogue on numerous and varied issues, and we got down to details on matters of importance for both sides.”

He said the process of rekindling ties with Ankara was being carried out “under no illusions, but reflects bilateral interests.”

Expressing hope that he had laid the groundwork for redeveloping bilateral ties, Herzog said that he engaged with Erdogan with his “eyes open and in full coordination with all cabinet ministries and other parties.”

Herzog noted that discussions with Erdogan about establishing a mechanism to prevent any future crises that could arise between the two countries were a measure that “reflects a correlation of bilateral interests.”

He also pointed out that there are a lot of matters of interest to both countries that are not politically charged, such as mutual trade, energy agreements and the Ukraine-Russia issue, “in which Israel and Turkey are both trying to help and mediate between the parties.”

Herzog later visited the Neve Shalom synagogue in the heart of Istanbul, which has been targeted three times in terror attacks, including a deadly 1986 shooting in which 22 people were killed and bombings in 1992 and in 2003.

The president was greeted by synagogue officials and the community with joyful clapping and blasts of the shofar, a ram’s horn.

Addressing the gathering, Herzog asked those assembled to pray for “our Jewish brothers and sisters of the Jewish community in Ukraine.”

He said Turkish Jews “have had a huge role in writing the history of the Jewish people,” with “a long line of rabbis, poets, wise men, traders, entrepreneurs and leaders” coming from the country.

“You are a symbol of solidarity, of tradition, of community that faces up to all the challenges,” he said. “I know that the Jewish community here in Turkey and also this synagogue, Neve Shalom, has experienced severe terrorist attacks. To my great regret, around the world Jewish schools, synagogues, supermarkets and Jewish businesses were and still are the target of haters.”

The president told the gathering that during their meeting the day before, Erdogan had told him he believes in “the need to strengthen that which binds us, all nations and religions.”

“Even more so in such days of war and terrible tragedy in Ukraine, we must walk in the path of the sons of Abraham, a legacy of respect, acceptance and friendship,” Herzog said.

Later in the day, the president and his wife, First Lady Michael Herzog, boarded a plane back to Israel.

President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal board a plane to Israel after concluding a state visit to Turkey on March 10, 2022 (GPO)

Hamas, Islamic Jihad slam meeting

The Hamas terror group condemned Erdogan’s meeting with Herzog, but without naming names.

“We express our sorrow over these visits to our brothers in Arab and Islamic countries, which we consider the strategic depth of our Palestinian people and their just national cause,” the terror group said Thursday.

The Islamic Jihad terror group — whose main regional patron is Iran — issued a more full-throated denunciation of Herzog’s Turkey trip.

“This trip sidesteps the blood of Turkish martyrs who died for Gaza,” Islamic Jihad said, a reference to the 10 Turkish citizens who died during the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident.

As part of rapprochement efforts, Israel has reportedly asked Turkey to expel Hamas officials.

Speaking anonymously, a source in the president’s entourage said that issues such as Hamas activity in Turkey, relations with the Palestinians and other political matters were discussed in Herzog and Erdogan’s meeting on Wednesday.

The source added that it is natural that there are “deliberations” in Israel on how to treat “the opportunity that has arisen,” adding that “the question is whether to turn our backs or to do our utmost and take advantage [of this opportunity] for both peoples.”

Regarding the crisis prevention mechanism between the two countries, the source said the idea is to examine the resolution that came about in the case of Mordy and Natali Oknin, an Israeli couple, both bus drivers, who were arrested in November for suspected espionage after they photographed Erdogan’s palace during a vacation in Istanbul.

Herzog participated in diplomatic efforts to secure their release and after Erdogan intervened they were set free, and Israel publicly thanked the Turkish president for his actions.

The source said the case showed how direct channels of communication and a desire on both sides to prevent the incident from ballooning with “miscalculations” had brought it to a close. The planned mechanism is expected to enable the examination of events in real time before the narrative is amplified by the media, the source explained.

Herzog said Tuesday that such a mechanism will be further developed during the expected visit of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Israel next month, which Herzog announced, catching Israel’s Foreign Ministry off-guard.

President Isaac Herzog (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the presidential complex in Ankara on March 9, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Herzog’s trip to Ankara on Wednesday was the highest-level visit by an Israeli official since former prime minister Ehud Olmert went to Turkey in 2008.

Erdogan said Tuesday he believed that Herzog’s “historic visit will be a turning point in relations between Turkey and Israel. Strengthening relations with the State of Israel has great value for our country.”

Despite high hopes for a possible diplomatic breakthrough during the meetings, the sides were not slated to discuss the installment of full ambassadors in each others’ capitals, a Foreign Ministry source told The Times of Israel.

Turkey and Israel once were close allies, but the relationship frayed under Erdogan, who is an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Israel also has been angered by Erdogan’s embrace of Hamas.

The countries withdrew their respective ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for Palestinians that broke an Israeli blockade. The incident resulted in the deaths of 10 Turkish activists.

Relations improved and then broke down again in 2018 when Turkey, angered by the US moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, once more recalled its ambassador, prompting Israel to respond in kind. The two countries have not restored their ambassadors.

The steps toward a rapprochement with Israel come as Turkey, beset by economic troubles, has been trying to end its international isolation by normalizing ties with several countries in the Mideast region, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

A diplomatic source on Thursday pointed to Erdogan’s busy timetable in the near future, including a meeting with US President Biden later in the day and a meeting with Greek and German leaders in the coming days, as indicative of his inclination to move closer to Western countries.

Times of Israel staff and Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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