Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, has left for Turkey on Wednesday, March 9, 2022, to meet his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as the countries seek to mend fractured ties.
The visit by the Israeli head will be the first since 2007.
President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Ankara and Istanbul was in the pipeline, weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine. However, the conflict could feature at the peace talks, with both Israel and Turkey playing mediation roles in recent days.
But bilateral issues are likely to dominate following more than a decade of diplomatic rupture between the Jewish state, and majority Muslim Turkey – a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause.
Issues to be discussed include gas sales to Europe, a topic that has acquired added urgency amid the Ukraine conflict.
Relations between the two nations (Israel & Turkey) froze after the death of 10 civilians following an Israeli raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship. This was part of a flotilla (a formation of small warships) trying to breach an embargo by carrying aid into the Gaza Strip in 2010.
Later in 2016, a reconciliation agreement saw the return of ambassadors to both nations, but collapsed in 2018, following border clashes with Gaza, that killed dozens of Palestinians. As a result, Turkey recalled its diplomats and ordered Israel’s envoy out of the country.
Israel not the needy side
In recent months, however, the countries have sought reconciliation.
Israel’s Presidency is traditionally a ceremonial post but Herzog, a veteran of the left-wing Labor party, has taken on a high-profile diplomatic role. Erdogan and Herzog have spoken several times since Herzog’s inauguration in July 2021. Israeli leaders expressed suspicion of Turkey’s outreach.
Gallia Lindenstrauss of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies stated that Erdogan’s move to secure the release of an Israeli couple arrested in Istanbul in November 2021, on espionage charges proved a “turning point.”
The matter “generated dialogue between the Israeli and Turkish side, and essentially opened the opportunity for improved relations,” said Lindenstrauss, who is a senior researcher and Turkey expert.
Dating back to a 2010 crisis, Israel created a strategic alliance with Greece and Cyprus, two states with long-standing bitterness towards Erdogan’s Turkey, and holding in recent years, regular trilateral meetings and conducting joint military drills.
The trio were part of the “East Mediterranean Gas Forum” established in 2019 with other states, including Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, without Turkey.
In 2020, Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed the EastMed deal for a pipeline to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, triggering objections from Ankara.
The United States also raised concern about the project, citing possible issues over its “commercial viability.”
Lindenstrauss disclosed that in the case of Turkey, the frustration over its exclusion from the gas talks, as well as an internal economic crisis, and a more confrontational US administration since President Joe Biden’s election, has pushed Ankara closer to Israel.
US-brokered, Abraham Accords, which saw Israel strike normalisation agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and re-established ties with Morocco, has made it clear that this time Israel “is not the needy side of the equation” with Turkey.
Attention on Ukraine, Greece, Cyprus
Israeli officials noted that Herzog and Erdogan may discuss prospects of exporting Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey, a notion raised by Erdogan in January 2022, amid fears of impaired supply following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Israel’s Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, also stepped into the role as a Russia-Ukraine mediator over the weekend, meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin for three hours on Saturday, March 5, 2022, and speaking to Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy three times in a day.
Erdogan is also in contact with Putin and Zelenskyy, while Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, is set to host his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in southern Turkey on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Regional ties also remain sensitive, and Herzog visited both Greece and Cyprus ahead of his Turkey trip to reassure the two Israeli allies.
Lindenstrauss stated that if Erdogan’s Israel outreach “reflects more moderacy in Turkey’s foreign policy, it’s also good news for Greece and Cyprus.”
Herzog also will meet with members of the Jewish community in Istanbul, before returning to Israel on Thursday, March 10, 2022.