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Israel confirms Herzog to visit Turkey as relations thaw

Turkish media reports visit scheduled for March 9; Erdogan’s top adviser and Turkish deputy FM will come to Israel to prepare trip

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

Israel confirmed on Tuesday morning that President Isaac Herzog will travel to Turkey and said it will host senior Turkish officials later this week to plan the visit.

Turkish media reported earlier in the day that the visit was set to take place on March 9-10.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had previously told Turkish media that he would host Herzog amid efforts to revitalize once-strong relations between the two countries, but at the time this was not confirmed by Israel, with a spokesperson for Herzog declining to comment on Erdogan’s announcement.

Ties between the two countries have appeared to thaw in recent months, as Erdogan made a number of statements about possible cooperation with Israel.

A statement from Herzog’s office Tuesday said that Erdogan’s top adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, and Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal will visit Israel in the coming days to prepare for the visit and to discuss relations between the two states.

The statement said that the two officials will meet with a number of Israeli officials, including Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz, who Herzog’s office confirmed visited Turkey for a similar meeting in December last year.

According to reports, during the trip, he met with Kalin, who serves as a media consultant for Erdogan and is considered his righthand man and adviser on diplomatic affairs.

Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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 visit to Turkey was the first by a senior Israeli official in nearly six years.

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.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Hamas terrorist movement chief Ismail Haniyeh, prior to their meeting in Istanbul, February 1, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

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 reciprocally 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.

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