PM raises captives held by Hamas, which has HQ in Turkey

Lapid hails mended Turkey ties in first meet between Erdogan, Israeli PM since 2008

Israeli leader thanks Turkish president for intel cooperation over Iranian attempts to target tourists in Istanbul this summer, as pair meet on sidelines of UN General Assembly

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, left, meets Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan in New York, September 20, 2022. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid, left, meets Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan in New York, September 20, 2022. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

NEW YORK — Prime Minister Yair Lapid met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly’s annual high-level meeting Tuesday, lauding the restoration of ties between Jerusalem and Ankara.

The meeting was the first between an Israeli premier and the Turkish leader since 2008, marking the apex of a year-long process that has seen the countries inch back toward full diplomatic relations after over a decade of frayed and frozen ties.

The meeting came just over a month after the two leaders held a phone call and agreed to move forward with the full restoration of ties and to return ambassadors to each other’s capitals, ending years of antagonism that largely surrounded Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Erdogan’s office confirmed the meeting took place but did not divulge any details.

Lapid hailed the elevation of the countries’ respective envoys, which have until now been at the level of chargé d’affaires, rather than ambassador, according to a statement from his office.

He specifically highlighted the Monday appointment of Israel’s charge d’affaires Irit Lilian to ambassador to Ankara, his office said. Turkey has yet to announce who will serve as its ambassador in Tel Aviv.

Erdogan had not held face-to-face talks with an Israeli premier since former prime minister Ehud Olmert visited Ankara in late December 2008. That meeting was the last of several between the pair, who had discussed possible Israeli-Syrian peace talks, among other issues.

In New York Tuesday, Lapid and Erdogan’s discussions focused on terrorism in Israel and abroad, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

The Israeli premier thanked Erdogan for Ankara’s willingness to share intelligence with Jerusalem earlier this summer when Israel instituted a travel warning due to fears that Iranian agents were seeking to target Israeli civilians visiting Turkey.

Two Turkish riot police officers walk in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, on June 14, 2022. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

In late July, Turkish security forces busted an Iranian cell that was planning to assassinate or kidnap Israeli tourists in Istanbul, local media reported at the time.

Lapid praised the recent resumption of Israeli flights to Turkey, which were halted due to the travel warning, adding that the development will lead to a boost in tourism for both countries, his office said.

Lapid also raised the plight of two Israeli civilians and the remains of a pair of slain IDF soldiers held by Hamas in Gaza for roughly nine years, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

The decision to bring up the matter appeared to be due to Turkey’s ties to Hamas, which has offices in Istanbul.

Jerusalem has long pressed Ankara to crack down on Hamas’s activity in Turkey, arguing that the Gaza-based group uses the foreign office to orchestrate terror attacks against Israelis. Turkey has reportedly cracked down on some Hamas activities on its soil in recent months, as its ties with Israel have warmed.

The détente comes after over a decade in which ties have been strained, largely due to Turkish protests of Israels’ treatment of Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, as well as animosity between Erdogan and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Already shaky ties were downgraded in May 2010 following a melee when Israeli soldiers boarded a ship attempting to breach a blockade on Gaza, with the ensuing violence left 10 Turkish citizens dead.

Illustrative: A Turkish demonstrator holding a banner with a Nazi swastika and Star of David in Istanbul, January 2, 2009. (Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)

The relationship was partially restored in 2016, but the countries fell out again in 2018 over Israel’s response to riots on the Gaza border following the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Erdogan over the 2010s was among Israel’s most strident critics, and he and Netanyahu often aimed harsh broadsides at each other, including charges of genocide. Despite the uneasy relationship, ties were never fully severed, with both countries keeping lucrative bilateral trade and tourism links intact.

Ties began to slowly improve last year, with Erdogan and President Isaac Herzog exchanging personal messages, followed by a series of escalating diplomatic contacts over a variety of issues.

Helping push Ankara closer to Israel was the cancelation of plans for Israel to pipe natural gas to Europe via a partnership with Turkish rivals Greece and Cyprus.

Turkish leaders have expressed a desire to have Israeli natural gas run through a pipeline to Turkey, and then on to Europe.

Lapid’s office said the two discussed expanding economic and energy cooperation, but offered few other details.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 20, 2022, at the UN headquarters in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

On Monday, Erdogan told a group of Jewish leaders in New York that he plans to visit Israel, another sign that he is intent on resetting a long-troubled relationship. He also shared his view that antisemitism is a “crime against humanity.”

In a further sign of the warming of ties, Erdogan limited his criticism of Israel during his speech before the General Assembly hours before his meeting with Lapid.

He called for the preservation of the status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and for an end to “illegal settlements” in the West Bank, but the rhetoric was less  angry than some of his other speeches in recent years, including one in 2018 in which he likened Israel to the Nazis and accused Israel of carrying out a “genocide” against the Palestinians.

In his lengthy UN address, Erdogan sufficed with calling for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Lapid is in New York for the UN General Assembly for the first time as prime minister. He is set to address the world body on Thursday, gaining his largest stage since taking on the premiership in June.

Lapid met later Tuesday with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, whom he pushed on “acting to rectify the discriminatory treatment of Israel at the UN,” Lapid’s office said.

Lapid highlighted the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry into Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, which Jerusalem asserts is inherently biased against the Jewish state.

A spokesperson for Guterres said the two also “discussed cooperation between Israel and the United Nations, including efforts to combat antisemitism. They also exchanged views on the way forward for the Middle East Peace Process.”

Lazar Berman and Luke Tress contributed to this report

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