Netanyahu discusses potential Saudi deal in first known meeting with Erdogan

Sitting down on UN General Assembly sidelines, leaders agree to arrange mutual visits; Erdogan is looking to tour Al-Aqsa Mosque soon, to mark 100th anniversary of Turkish Republic

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 19, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 19, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

NEW YORK — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the effort to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia during his first-ever known meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

The meeting came a day after Erdogan told reporters he supported the Biden administration’s initiative to broker an Israeli-Saudi deal, saying it would lower tensions in the region.

Netanyahu and Erdogan also agreed to coordinate mutual visits in the near future, according to Netanyahu’s office.

Erdogan is interested in arranging a trip to Israel as soon as possible to pray at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Channel 12 news reported, without citing a source. The prayer would mark the 100-year anniversary of the Turkish Republic, founded on October 29, 1923.

According to the Turkish readout of Tuesday’s meeting, the leaders discussed developments in Israeli-Palestinian relations. It also said that Erdogan urged cooperation in energy, technology, innovation, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.

Turkey’s foreign minister, energy minister, and intelligence chief were also present for the meeting.

Erdogan tweeted out pictures of the sit-down, expressing hope that “our consultations will be beneficial for our country and the region.”

Signs of improved ties were also evident in Erdogan’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 19, 2023 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In contrast with previous years, Erdogan refrained from condemning Israel and offered only a few words of support for the Palestinians, mentioning them almost as an aside in his speech.

“In order for peace to ring in the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be brought to an eventual solution,” he said. “We will continue to support the Palestinian people and their struggle for legitimate rights under international law.”

Without a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders “it is difficult for Israel to find the peace and security it seeks in that part of the world,” he said.

“We will continue to pursue respect for the historic status of Jerusalem,” he added.

The comments, reflecting improved ties between Jerusalem and Ankara, came hours before his meeting with Netanyahu at Turkish House.

In past years, Erdogan has used the podium to sling harsh censure at Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. In 2020, he prompted a walkout by the Israeli envoy after saying that “the dirty hand that reaches the privacy of Jerusalem, where the sacred places of the three great religions coexist, is constantly increasing its audacity.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and President Isaac Herzog speak to the media after their talks, in Ankara, Turkey, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Tuesday’s meeting was the first known to have taken place between the Turkish leader and Netanyahu. (There were reports ahead of an expected meeting in 2016, but no confirmation that it took place.)

It came amid a warming of ties between Israel and Turkey after years of animosity between the two countries’ leaders. President Isaac Herzog was hosted by Erdogan last March in Ankara — the first high-level Israeli visit since 2008 — and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met the Turkish leader in February.

Then-prime minister Yair Lapid met with Erdogan in New York during last year’s General Assembly.

Both Netanyahu and Herzog called Erdogan in May to congratulate him on his victory in the presidential elections and urged a continued improvement in ties between the two regional powers.

Israel was a long-time regional ally of Turkey before Erdogan came to power, but ties imploded after a 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship, part of a blockade-busting flotilla, that left dead 10 Turkish activists who attacked IDF soldiers aboard the ship.

Israel’s ambassador to Turkey Irit Lillian (L) presents her letter of credence to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, December 27, 2022 (Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)

Netanyahu and Erdogan repeatedly aimed brickbats at each other in the ensuing years, including leveling charges of genocide at each other. In July 2014, Erdogan accused the Jewish state of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” during a war with Gaza.

Ties later saw a moderate improvement, but both countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2018.

Facing hardening diplomatic isolation and economic woes, Erdogan began to publicly display an openness toward rapprochement in December 2020. In August of last year, Israel and Turkey announced a full renewal of diplomatic ties.

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