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'I extend congratulation to Your Excellency and Israel'

In Independence Day letter to Herzog, Erdogan wishes Israel prosperity, well-being

With Ramadan tensions behind them, Israeli and Turkish leaders hold phone call, look forward to next steps in warming ties

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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

In the latest sign of warming ties between Ankara and Jerusalem, President Isaac Herzog spoke on Monday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had sent a congratulatory letter ahead of Israel’s Independence Day.

Herzog wished his counterpart and the Turkish people a happy Eid al-Fitr holiday, which began Sunday night.

According to Herzog’s office, the leaders spoke about the importance of open dialogue in order to maintain calm and stability in the region.

“On the occasion of the National Day of the State of Israel, I extend congratulation to Your Excellency and the people of Israel on behalf of my nation and myself,” wrote Erdogan in the letter. “In the new period in our relations, heralded by Your Excellency’s visit to our country in March, I sincerely believe that the cooperation between our countries will develop in a way that serves our mutual national interests, as well as regional peace and stability.”

Erdogan also extended his wishes “for the health and happiness of Your Excellency, and for the well-being and prosperity of the people of Israel.”

It was the third time in recent weeks that the two leaders spoke by phone. On April 19, amid rising violence at the Temple Mount between Palestinians and Israeli police, Erdoğan called to express his “concern and pain” over the ongoing tensions.

During that phone call, which was made at the Turkish leader’s behest, Erdogan stressed the importance of preserving the religious status quo at the Jerusalem holy site and said he was happy to hear Israel’s firm statements about maintaining it, according to a statement from Herzog’s office.

Erdogan also called on April 1 to condemn a series of Palestinian terror attacks that left 11 people dead.

From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli president Isaac Herzog and Rabbi Marc Schneier, at a reception in Ankara, Turkey, on March 9, 2022. (Courtesy: Marc Schneier)

Herzog visited Turkey in March for a landmark 24-hour visit. In remarks to the media, Erdoğan 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.”

For over a decade, Turkey was one of Israel’s most bitter critics on the international stage. Anti-Israel rhetoric from top officials, led by Erdogan, verged on the apoplectic. Ankara also took actions that angered officials in Jerusalem, most notably providing support and a haven for the Hamas terror group.

For the past two years, however, Erdogan has struck a noticeably different tone toward Israel, expressing interest in improving ties with his erstwhile and possibly future ally.

Part of something bigger

The timing of the phone call, coming right after the end of holy month of Ramadan, was no coincidence.

“From the Turkish point of view, the end of Ramadan means that we succeeded in the major test,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, “that we don’t have any more violence that could upend everything.”

Palestinians worshipers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on the last Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on April 29, 2022. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

“Now they can talk about joint future projects,” said Cohen.

Both countries have a clear interest in cooperating on natural gas, especially the possibility of piping Israeli gas through Turkey to Europe.

The two countries can now also focus on visits by senior officials. Last month, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he would be visiting Israel in May.

Erdogan is also angling for a visit by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the restoration of full diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Ankara.

After Erdogan intervened to free an Israeli couple arrested in Turkey as suspected spies, Bennett thanked him by phone, and in late March, the Turkish president said Bennett might soon visit the country. The Prime Minister’s Office denied that any plans were in place, but it is clear that both sides see such a visit as the final step on the way to fully restored ties.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, speak during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, November 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Erdogan’s efforts to woo Israel are part of a larger campaign to improve ties with European and Middle Eastern powers, especially Israel’s partners in the Arab world. Many of these countries have treated Turkey as a leading geopolitical and ideological adversary over the last decade.

“It’s a small part of something bigger,” said Cohen.

Mohamed Bin Zayed, the UAE’s powerful crown prince and de facto leader, flew out to Turkey in November to meet with Erdogan. After the meeting, the two countries inked billions of dollars worth of agreements in trade, energy, technology, banking, and investments.

Turkey has been working to restore sites with the Saudis as well. Last week, Erdogan flew to Jeddah to meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. Earlier in April, the trial in Turkey of 26 Saudis accused of involvement in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was halted, and the proceedings were transferred to the Saudis.

“We are almost four years removed from that event,” said Yusuf Erim, Turkey analyst at TRT World. “The geopolitical atmosphere in the Middle East has changed, and the reconciliation between Turkey and actors like the UAE, Israel, are definitely a sign of changing times.

“Many of the obstacles in front of a [Turkey-Saudi] reconciliation process have been removed, and it seems that everyone is prepared to be more pragmatic, more forward-looking,” he said.

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