ANKARA — President Isaac Herzog met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday afternoon, shortly after landing in Ankara for a landmark 24-hour visit.
In remarks to the media, Erdogan said he believed that “this 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.”
He noted that the meeting with Herzog included a discussion about events in Ukraine and in the Eastern Mediterranean and said he believed “the coming period will bring new opportunities for both regional and bilateral cooperation.”
The Turkish leader expressed hope that “this important visit, taking place after so long, will provide an opening for future joint opportunities.”
Erdogan went on to call antisemitism “a crime against humanity,” saying that “hate crimes continue to take place all over the world and we will continue to tackle xenophobia, racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia.”
Speaking after Erdogan, Herzog thanked the Turkish president for the warm welcome and opened his speech by saying in Turkish: “My wife and I are very happy to be in Turkey as your guests.”
Addressing the meeting with Erdogan, Herzog said the leaders held “productive” talks and addressed many issues.
“This is a very important moment in relations between our countries, and I feel it is a great privilege for both of us to lay the foundations for the cultivation of friendly relations between our states and our peoples, and to build bridges that are critical for all of us,” he said.
“Our peoples’ relationship is an ancient one, with strong historical, religious, and cultural roots. The long line of magnificent Jewish leaders, rabbis, poets, sages, merchants, and entrepreneurs represents only part of the Jewish People’s history here in this land,” he said.
“I believe that the relationship between our countries will be judged by deeds reflecting a spirit of mutual respect and will enable us to better confront the regional and global challenges that are common to us all,” he added.
In an incident that caused some confusion, both Herzog and Erdogan announced that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu would visit Israel next month — but apparently caught Israel’s Foreign Ministry off guard.
Herzog said Cavusoglu was expected to meet with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Media reports said the two would discuss the reopening of embassies in both countries.
But it later emerged that neither Lapid nor his ministry had been aware of or had okayed such a visit. According to Channel 13 news, Herzog and Lapid’s offices were attempting to sort out the miscommunication.
Lapid’s spokesman told reporters that Cavusoglu had expressed interest in visiting, but that no visit had been scheduled yet.
BREAKING: Israeli President Herzog meets Turkish President Erdogan in Ankara pic.twitter.com/2umR91xFjk
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) March 9, 2022
According to a report by Channel 12, Herzog and Erdogan also discussed Turkey’s relationship with the Hamas terror group, and specifically recent visits by Hamas leaders to Ankara — long a sore point for Israel’s leaders.
According to Channel 13, as part of warming ties, Israel expects Erdogan to expel senior Hamas leaders currently believed to be staying in Turkey, such as Saleh al-Arouri, a top commander of Hamas’s military wing and the terror group’s deputy political chief.
Herzog raised this issue during his meeting with Erdogan, the report said.
Another issue reportedly discussed at the meeting was gas exploration, which Turkey is seeking to promote in the Mediterranean. This may place Israel in a difficult position, considering its commitment to Cyprus and Greece on energy-based cooperation, and their hostile relations with Turkey.
Turkey doesn’t recognize the Greek Cypriot-dominated government in Cyprus, decries its “unilateral” gas searches it says ignore Turkish Cypriot rights to potential mineral wealth and claims much of Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone as its own.
Herzog and Erdogan also discussed establishing a problem-solving mechanism meant to prevent relations from reaching a stalemate in the future.
The reappointment of ambassadors was not confirmed by either Herzog and Erdogan.
While both leaders expressed high hopes for a brighter future between the nations, a report by Channel 13 indicated that the process may take longer to establish.
According to the report, anti-Israel protesters gathered outside Erdogan’s palace during his meeting with Herzog and replaced Israeli flags with Palestinian flags.
Herzog’s trip marks the highest-level visit by an Israeli official since former prime minister Ehud Olmert made the trip in 2008, and is seen as an important step toward rekindling the two countries’ long-floundering relationship.
The president arrived on a plane emblazoned with the words “peace,” “future” and “partnership” in Hebrew, Turkish and English.
Arriving at the presidential complex in Ankara, Herzog was greeted by Erdogan and an honor guard, as a band played the Israeli anthem for the first time since 2008.
Herzog and his wife Michal were to be hosted by Erdogan for a state dinner.
Despite high hopes for a possible diplomatic breakthrough during the meetings, the sides are not slated to discuss or announce the installment of full ambassadors in each others’ capitals, a Foreign Ministry source told The Times of Israel.
شاهدوا جانب من الاستقبال المهيب اللى نظمه الرئيس أردوغان لـ أخيه الرئيس الإسرائيلي وتم عزف النشيد الوطني الاسرائيلي. (شعار الاخوانجية الجديد #التطبيع_أمانة) ????????❤️???????? pic.twitter.com/oO34x4KKeX
— شؤون تركية (@TurkeyAffairs) March 9, 2022
Herzog’s visit to the Turkish capital and to Istanbul was planned weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, but the conflict could feature at the talks, with both Israel and Turkey playing mediation roles in recent days.
But bilateral issues are likely to dominate following more than a decade of diplomatic rupture between the Jewish state and majority Muslim Turkey.
Prior to his meeting with Erdogan, Herzog visited the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, and laid a wreath.
Signing a guestbook at the memorial, the Israeli president wished for a “safer and more stable world” for Israel and Turkey.
“It is a distinct privilege to be visiting this historic site, immortalizing the great visionary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,” he wrote in English.
“May we follow in the wisdom of this great leader’s legacy of progress and peace, boldly choosing the path of collaboration and welcoming the many fruits to be reaped from the promise of a safer and more stable world for our nations, our faiths, our region and the world,” he added.
The president and the first lady also toured the Anıtkabir Ataturk Museum.
Later, First Lady Michal Herzog visited the Presidential Library in Ankara, accompanied by Turkish First Lady Emine Erdogan.
Herzog gifted a number of Hebrew books to the institution, including works by S. Y. Agnon, Leah Goldberg, and David Grossman, as well as a Hebrew Bible and a Hebrew translation of the Quran.
First Lady Michal Herzog visits the Presidential Library in Ankara, accompanied by Turkish First Lady Emine Erdogan, March 9, 2022 (Courtesy)
Before departing on his trip, Herzog said rekindling relations with Turkey wouldn’t be easy but it would benefit the Middle East as a whole.
“Relations between Israel and Turkey are important to Israel, important to Turkey and important to the entire region,” he said.
“Hopefully following my visit, a process of in-depth and serious dialogue with Turkey will begin at various levels, and we will eventually see progress with positive relations and results,” he said, noting that his trip was being made in full coordination with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
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 terror group that controls the Gaza Strip and is committed to Israel’s destruction.
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.