Netanyahu, Herzog call Erdogan after election victory, vow to improve ties

Israeli leaders tell Turkish president they want to continue to strengthen their bilateral relationship after diplomatic rapprochement last year

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)

Israeli leaders spoke late Monday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on his electoral victory and urge a continued improvement in ties between the two regional powers.

President Isaac Herzog, who was instrumental in recent efforts to restore ties, spoke with Erdogan about “the importance of working together to protect stability, advancing regional peace, and deepening the fruitful cooperation between the two countries,” according to a statement from Herzog’s office.

Herzog and Erdogan also expressed hope that they will meet soon, the statement said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also later spoke with the Turkish president, who is entering his third decade of rule, to congratulate him on his victory Sunday.

The two leaders agreed to continue to work to strengthen ties between the countries and bring them to “new heights,” Netanyahu’s office said.

According to the readout from Netanyahu’s office, Erdogan again thanked Israel for helping with search and rescue efforts during the recent deadly earthquake in Turkey.

IDF search and rescue teams work to find survivors after an earthquake in Turkey on February 10, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Meanwhile, Netanyahu told Erdogan he was “committed to expanding the circle of peace” in the Middle East.

Despite a recent improvement, ties between Netanyahu and Erdogan have long been tense.

Israel was a long-time regional ally of Turkey before Erdogan came to power but deteriorating 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 dead who attacked IDF soldiers aboard the ship.

Despite an official apology by Netanyahu, Erdogan went on to accuse the Jewish state of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” during Operation Defensive Shield in Gaza in July 2014.

Despite a moderate subsequent improvement in relations, both countries withdrew their ambassadors after Erdogan leveled charges of “state terrorism” and “genocide” at Israel when dozens of Palestinians were killed in Gaza rioting on May 14, 2018, the day former US president Donald Trump controversially moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

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

The two countries restored ambassadors later that year.

Netanyahu and Herzog joined a host of world leaders who congratulated Erdogan on his newest election victory on Sunday night, following a runoff that posed the biggest challenge to his 20 years of transformative but divisive rule.

Erdogan won reelection Sunday, extending his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade as the country reels from high inflation and the aftermath of the earthquake that leveled entire cities.

US President Joe Biden on Sunday congratulated Erdogan, tweeting: “I look forward to continuing to work together as NATO Allies on bilateral issues and shared global challenges,” He made no mention of recent tensions in the bilateral relationship.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also offered his own congratulations to Erdogan on Twitter, calling Turkey “a valued @NATO Ally and partner.”

“I look forward to our continued work together with the government chosen by the Turkish people,” he said. Blinken also praised Sunday’s high voter turnout and the country’s “long democratic tradition.”

Ties between Turkey and the United States have been tested in recent years, including over crackdowns on dissent, military operations in Syria, Erdogan’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin even amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and Ankara’s protestations over a bid by Sweden to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Turkish President and People’s Alliance’s presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, gestures to supporters at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP/Ali Unal)

Putin said Erdogan’s victory Sunday was “clear evidence” that the Turkish people support his efforts to “strengthen state sovereignty and pursue an independent foreign policy.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was counting on building the partnership between the two countries and strengthening cooperation “for the security and stability of Europe.”

Palestinian terror group Hamas released a statement congratulating the longtime Turkish leader and hoped for a new era of “strengthening Islamic-Arab ties and support for the Palestinian issue.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also released a statement hailing the incumbent’s victory, expressing belief he “will continue on the path of development and secure great achievements for Turkey and its people.”

With more than 99% of ballot boxes opened, unofficial results from competing news agencies showed Erdogan with 52% of the vote, compared with 48% for his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The head of Turkey’s electoral board confirmed the victory, saying that even after accounting for outstanding votes, the result was another term for Erdogan.

Kilicdaroglu pushed Erdogan into Turkey’s first runoff on May 14 and narrowed the margin further in the second round.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate of Turkey’s main opposition alliance, in Ankara on May 27, 2023. (Adem ALTAN / AFP)

A third term gives Erdogan, a polarizing populist, an even stronger hand domestically and internationally, and the election results will have implications far beyond the capital of Ankara. Turkey stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and it plays a key role in NATO.

In two speeches — one in Istanbul and one in Ankara — Erdogan thanked the nation for entrusting him with the presidency for five more years.

“We hope to be worthy of your trust, as we have been for 21 years,” he told supporters on a campaign bus outside his home in Istanbul in his first comments after the results emerged.

He ridiculed his challenger for his loss, saying “bye bye bye, Kemal,” as supporters booed. He said the divisions of the election are now over, but he continued to rail against his opponent as well as the former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish party who has been imprisoned for years over alleged links to terrorism.

“The only winner today is Turkey,” Erdogan said to hundreds of thousands gathered outside the presidential palace in Ankara, promising to work hard for Turkey’s second century, which he calls the “Turkish century.” The country marks its centennial this year.

Opposition supporters viewed the election as a do-or-die chance to save Turkey from being turned into an autocracy by a man whose consolidation of power rivals that of Ottoman sultans.

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