Talks on a possible presidential trip said to be ongoing

Israel said viewing Herzog-Erdogan meet as ‘trial’ for warmer relations with Turkey

Officials say recent actions taken by Turkish leader have proven his ‘seriousness,’ including efforts to curb Hamas activity and freeing Israeli tourist couple accused of espionage

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a press conference in Ankara, on January 20, 2022. (Adem Altan/AFP)
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a press conference in Ankara, on January 20, 2022. (Adem Altan/AFP)

Israeli officials are seeing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent proposition of a meeting in Ankara with his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog as a “testing ground” for a future improvement of ties with Turkey, according to a report Sunday.

Erdogan said Herzog would visit in early February, but did not offer other details about the trip. A spokesperson for Herzog declined to comment on Erdogan’s announcement, but officials have confirmed talks on a visit, speaking on condition of anonymity.

An Israeli official quoted by the Haaretz news site described the potential meeting as an “indicator” of the Turkish president’s intentions.

“A meeting at the presidential level is… a tool that can be used,” he said. “The president is a symbolic figure, not a political one, and in any case, Herzog is conducting his own talks with the Turks. One can start with such a channel and then check the developments and implications, all at a slow pace.”

Another official said: “The decision is being formed to change ties with Turkey from ‘frozen’ to ‘cool.’ All kinds of symbolic things can happen. For example, an exchange of ambassadors or economic deals. But we won’t move ahead without clear things in return from Turkey.”

Once robust regional allies, Israel and Turkey saw their ties fray throughout Erdogan’s tenure, during which the Turkish leader has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Isaac Herzog participates in the March of the Living ceremony at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, on May 2, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Israel, meanwhile, is upset by Erdogan’s warm relations with Hamas, the terror group that controls the Gaza Strip.

The countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed 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.

However, one official quoted by Haaretz said that Erdogan has “demonstrated his seriousness” with several recent actions taken recently: the release of Natali and Mordy Oknin — an Israeli tourist couple arrested in Turkey last year for alleged spying — as well as recent efforts to restrict Hamas activities in his country.

Natali and Mordy Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, speak to journalists hours after they were released at their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“Erdogan is showing very positive signals in fighting terror and in his actions vis-à-vis Hamas in Turkey,” the official said. “This is very significant because from our perspective, this is one of the main issues that prevent us from upgrading relations – the fact that he hosts a terror organization.”

Turkey — battered by an economic crisis at home — has recently taken steps to improve relations with regional rivals, after a reported drop in United States support for a controversial Mediterranean gas pipeline.

Erdogan has indicated that he sought Turkey to be involved in the import of Israeli gas to Europe, saying there had been “some progress” on the matter in the past.

Israel and a group of countries, including Turkey’s historic rival Greece, have been working on a joint pipeline to bring eastern Mediterranean Sea gas to Europe. Turkey strongly opposed the project and staked its own territorial claims to the region’s energy wealth.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks ahead of the eighth Greece-Cyprus-Israel summit alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (left) and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, December 7, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Erdogan has said he is resurrecting talks with Israel on an old idea to bring Mediterranean gas to European clients via Turkey.

Officials quoted by Haaretz said that better ties with Turkey will not come at the expense of Israel’s alliance with Greece and Cyprus, who were reportedly already aware of the possibility.

“These two countries did not express opposition to a warming of ties. Israel made clear that security cooperation with them would continue and they themselves are advancing dialogue with Erdogan,” an official said.

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