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Turkey says Herzog to visit next month, could open a ‘new chapter in relations’

Erdogan seeking to improve long-strained ties with Israel amid efforts for energy deal, says Turkey ‘ready to take steps in Israel’s direction in all areas’

President Isaac Herzog (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right). (AP)
President Isaac Herzog (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right). (AP)

President Isaac Herzog will pay an official visit to Turkey in February, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Wednesday, hailing it as a chance for a reset in relations with the Jewish state.

“This visit could open a new chapter in relations between Turkey and Israel,” Erdogan said in an interview with Turkey’s NTV channel, adding that he was “ready to take steps in Israel’s direction in all areas.”

The Turkish president 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 while speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If a leader of an important Muslim country like Turkey reaches out to Israel, there is no option other than giving a positive answer,” a senior Israeli official told Axios Wednesday.

The trip comes as Ankara has looked to rehabilitate its relationship with Jerusalem, following over a decade of frayed ties, amid a flurry of contacts between the countries after years of near radio silence.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke Thursday by phone with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, who called to inquire about the foreign minister’s health following his COVID-19 diagnosis.

The phone call was the first between Israeli and Turkish foreign ministers to be publicly announced in 13 years.

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

(FILES) This file photo taken on August 23, 2019 in Istanbul shows a view of Turkish General Directorate of Mineral research and Exploration’s (MTA) Oruc Reis seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port, which searches for hydrocarbon, oil, natural gas and coal reserves at sea. Greece on August 11, 2020 demanded that Turkey withdraw a research ship at the heart of their growing dispute over maritime rights and warned it would defend its sovereignty, calling for an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers to resolve the crisis. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP)

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 on the region’s energy wealth.

The pipeline was also supported by the former administration of US president Donald Trump.

But Israeli and other media have reported that Washington privately informed Greece last week that US President Joe Biden’s team no longer backed the pipeline project because it created regional tensions with Turkey.

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

“We can still do that,” Erdogan said.

“If [Israeli gas] would be brought to Europe, it could only be done through Turkey,” Erdogan said last week. “Is there any hope for now? We can sit and talk about the conditions.”

The Turkish president, who had a famously combative relationship with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also praised current premier Naftali Bennett, for having “a positive approach.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks following his cabinet meeting in Ankara, May 17, 2021. (Mustafa Kamaci/Turkish Presidency via AP)

In November, Herzog and Erdogan spoke on the phone after Turkey released an Israeli couple from prison. Authorities had detained the couple, who are both bus drivers, for taking photos of Erdogan’s palace, claiming they were spies.

During the call with Herzog, Erdogan stressed that he views ties with Israel as important to his country and “of key importance to the peace, stability, and security of the Middle East.”

The two also spoke by phone following the death of Herzog’s mother this month.

In December, Erdogan told a delegation of visiting Jewish leaders that relations with Israel were “vital for the security and stability of the region” and spoke optimistically about the potential for improving ties.

Erdogan told the members of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States that he welcomed recent dialogue with Herzog and Bennett, while saying a sincere Israeli effort to advance peace with the Palestinians “will undoubtedly contribute to the normalization process” between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Members of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS) gift Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an ornate menorah on behalf of the Turkish Jewish Community during a meeting with the president in his Ankara palace, Dec. 23, 2021. L-r: Akif Gilalov, head of the World Congress of Mountain Jews; Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia; Erdogan; Isak Haleva, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Turkey; Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, director of ARIS; Erol Kohen, president of the Turkish Jewish Community. (David I. Klein/JTA)

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

Israel, for its part, 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 broke 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 ambassador from Israel, prompting Israel to reciprocate.

Herzog, who has been actively involved in bolstering Israel’s foreign relations, is set to visit the United Arab Emirates next week.

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