Turkey’s Erdogan announces Herzog to make official visit in mid-March

Turkish president says meeting with his Israeli counterpart will come amid mutual interest to improve ties; Herzog’s office declines to comment

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tirana, Albania, on January 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Franc Zhurda)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tirana, Albania, on January 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Franc Zhurda)

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Thursday that he will host President Isaac Herzog for an official visit in mid-March amid efforts to revitalize once-strong relations between the two countries.

Speaking to reporters before he headed to Kyiv in Ukraine, Erdogan said that both Turkey and Israel are eager to rebuild ties that have been strained for a number of years.

A spokesperson for Herzog declined to comment on Erdogan’s announcement, but officials have previously confirmed talks on a visit, speaking on condition of anonymity

Erdogan has repeatedly said he is interested in hosting Herzog and recently predicted a visit in February.

Herzog this week made a first official visit to the United Arab Emirates, which normalized ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords in 2020.

Last week an Israeli official quoted by the Haaretz news site described the potential meeting between Herzog and Erdogan as an “indicator” of the Turkish president’s intentions.

“A meeting at the presidential level is… a tool that can be used,” he said. “The president is a symbolic figure, not a political one, and in any case, Herzog is conducting his own talks with the Turks. One can start with such a channel and then check the developments and implications, all at a slow pace.”

President Isaac Herzog speaks at Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 31, 2022 (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Another official said: “The decision is being formed to change ties with Turkey from ‘frozen’ to ‘cool.’ All kinds of symbolic things can happen. For example, an exchange of ambassadors or economic deals. But we won’t move ahead without clear things in return from Turkey.”

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

Israel, meanwhile, 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 boarded a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for the Palestinians that attempted to break 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 envoy from Israel, prompting Israel to reciprocate.

However, one official quoted by Haaretz said that Erdogan has “demonstrated his seriousness” in several ways: the release of Natali and Mordy Oknin, an Israeli tourist couple arrested in Turkey last year for alleged spying, and recent efforts to restrict Hamas activities in his country.

Natali and Mordy Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, speak to journalists hours after they were released at their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

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

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 to the region’s energy wealth.

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

Officials quoted by Haaretz last week said that better ties with Turkey will not come at the expense of Israel’s alliance with Greece and Cyprus, who were reportedly already aware of the possibility.

“These two countries did not express opposition to a warming of ties. Israel made clear that security cooperation with them would continue and they themselves are advancing dialogue with Erdogan,” an official said.

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