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On eve of Lapid's meeting with Erdogan in New York

Israel appoints first ambassador to Turkey since 2018 as countries restore ties

Irit Lillian, currently charge d’affaires in Ankara, set to usher in new era of ties between regional powers after a decade of acrimony

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel's charge d'affaires in Turkey, Irit Lillian (Foreign Ministry)
Israel's charge d'affaires in Turkey, Irit Lillian (Foreign Ministry)

Irit Lillian, a senior diplomat who has played a key role in Israel-Turkey reconciliation, will serve as the next ambassador to Turkey, the Foreign Ministry announced Monday.

Lillian has been Israel’s charge d’affaires in Ankara since February 2021, during which time both sides have moved slowly to restore full diplomatic relations.

There has not been an ambassador in the country since 2018, when Turkey recalled its ambassador and asked Israel’s to leave in protest of Israel’s response to rioting on the Gaza border, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed.

Last month, the two sides announced that they would be restoring full diplomatic ties after two years of gradual rapprochement, which picked up pace noticeably this year with mutual visits by senior officials.

“From the beginning, it was clear that we were building a process in which we agree to disagree,” Lillian — who was previously Israel’s ambassador to Bulgaria and also served as acting ambassador in Australia — told The Times of Israel during an August interview.

“We are going into proper, positive bilateral relations that have a wide range of activities, but we know that there are points we don’t agree on,” she said. “We know we are not going into a perfect marriage.”

Lillian’s appointment must now be approved by the government, and — because the country is being run by a caretaker government — Israel’s attorney general.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid is slated to meet with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.

Composite image shows Prime Minister Yair Lapid, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool; AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Lapid will fly to New York on Monday evening, and speak at the assembly on Thursday, his office said.

Lapid visited Ankara as foreign minister in June, where he met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. After the high-level talks aimed at cementing the countries’ rapprochement, Lapid hailed security cooperation with Turkey in helping foil an Iranian plot to kidnap or kill Israeli nationals in Istanbul.

Israel was a long-time regional ally of Turkey, before a 2010 commando raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, part of a blockade-busting flotilla, left 10 Turkish activists dead in a violent melee after they attacked Israeli soldiers who boarded the ship.

Despite an official apology by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Erdogan maintained his rage, accusing the Jewish state of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” during Operation Defensive Shield in July 2014 and calling it a “terrorist state.”

Relations later improved somewhat, but both countries withdrew their ambassadors after Erdogan in 2018 leveled charges of “state terrorism” and “genocide” at Israel when dozens of Palestinians were killed in Gaza rioting in May of that year, after then-US president Donald Trump controversially moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shows the way to President Isaac Herzog during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Amid diplomatic signals this year indicating Erdogan was seeking détente with Israel, President Isaac Herzog visited Ankara on an official trip in March and was welcomed in the capital by a full military procession.

Erdogan has likely been seeking to thaw relations with Israel to reduce Turkey’s growing political and economic isolation.

The Turkish currency has plummeted in recent years, leaving Turkey in economic turmoil with an election slated for 2023.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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