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After 3-year hiatus, Turkey invites Israeli minister to diplomatic conference

Move seen as attempt to strengthen relations amid strife over natural gas in the Mediterranean

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul on August 5, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul on August 5, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

After a three-year hiatus, an Israeli minister has been invited to Turkey to attend an official conference sponsored by the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu extended an invitation to Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, in an apparent attempt to warm Israel’s relations with Turkey as the Middle East battles over natural gas, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday.

Israel has been using energy diplomacy to help create a bloc to counter Turkish policies in the region. But Steinitz made news in March when he mentioned during a press conference in Cyprus that Israel would be open to cooperating with Turkey on natural gas.

Additionally, in the face of increasing isolation and economic challenges, in recent months Turkey has signaled a desire to turn a new page in its relations with Israel, the EU, Greece and Egypt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis (C) and Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiadis shake hands in Athens on January 2, 2020, ahead of the signing of an agreement for the EastMed pipeline project designed to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. (Aris Messins/AFP)

In January 2020, Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed an agreement for a huge pipeline project to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, despite Turkey’s hostility to the deal.

The discovery of hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean sparked a scramble for the energy riches and a row between Cyprus and Turkey, which occupies the northern part of the Mediterranean island.

The EastMed deal countered Turkey’s effort to extend its control to the eastern Mediterranean, after Erdogan said in November 2019 that he envisaged joint energy exploration activities with Libya in the eastern Mediterranean.

Greece responded angrily to the Turkey-Libya deal, expelling the Libyan ambassador and urging the UN to condemn it. Part of the agreement sets a maritime boundary between the two countries, which Greece said fails to take into account the Greek island of Crete.

View of the Israeli Leviathan gas field gas processing rig as it seen from Dor Habonim Beach Nature Reserve, on January 1, 2020. Photo by Flash90

Israel, an energy powerhouse in the region, pumps gas to Jordan and Egypt from its two massive offshore fields, Tamar and Leviathan. The latter, which is estimated to hold 22 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas and constitutes Israel’s largest energy project in history, has afforded Israel opportunities to establish stronger diplomatic ties with its neighbors.

Israel considered a gas deal with Turkey in 2016 as a rapprochement after the countries fell out over a deadly storming by Israeli commandos in 2010 of a Turkish flotilla to Gaza.

Israel later paid Turkey $20 million in compensation, a key pillar of a deal signed in June 2016 to restore ties after a six-year rift.

Turkey, once a strong Muslim ally of Israel, has become a geopolitical foe under Erdogan.

The country recalled its ambassador from Israel in May 2018, after violent protests on the Gaza border in which over 60 Palestinians, most of them thought to be members of Hamas and other terror groups, were killed. After the riots, Erdogan called Israel a “terrorist state.”

Çavuşoğlu’s invitation is the first extended to an Israeli minister since.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks to the media, in Ankara, Turkey, November 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

The foreign minister, speaking to Turkish media this week, said, according to Kan: “If there is a change in policy on the part of Israel, we will be willing to consider a change in policy on our part as well. We currently have economic relations, but the rest of our relations will require steps to correct.”

The diplomatic conference will be held in Antalya in June.

In December 2020, Erdogan said he wished to improve ties with Israel after years of criticism. “Our relations with Israel on intelligence have not ceased anyway, they are still continuing,” Erdogan said during a press conference. “We have some difficulties with the people at the top.”

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, poses for photographers with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, prior to a meeting at Yildiz Mabeyn Palace in Istanbul on January 23, 2016. (Kayhan Ozer/ Presidential Press Service, Pool via AP)

He stressed that Ankara “cannot accept the attitude of Israel toward the Palestinian lands,” and that “we differ from Israel in terms of our understanding of both justice and the territorial integrity of countries.”

But, he noted: “Otherwise, our heart desires that we can move our relations with them to a better point.”

After US President Joe Biden’s election, Turkey said it would appoint a new ambassador to Israel, in an effort to strengthen ties with Washington.

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