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Israel president arrives in Turkey on a landmark visit

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ANKARA: Israel’s president Isaac Herzog landed in Ankara Wednesday on a trip aimed at repairing fractured ties with Turkey, in the first visit to the country by an Israeli head of state since 2007.
The two countries have traded accusations constantly over Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and Ankara’s support for the Hamas group, which governs the Gaza Strip.

Before departing Israel, Isaac Herzog said that in talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he would seek to “restart” relations undermined by “ups and downs.”

The ties between the two countries have been rocky for various reasons, in particular after the death of 10 civilians in an Israeli raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship, part of a flotilla trying to breach an Israeli blockade on besieged Gaza by carrying aid into the territory in 2010.

President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Ankara and Istanbul was in the making weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, but the conflict could feature at the talks, with both Israel and Turkey playing mediation roles in recent days.

However, President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Ankara and Istanbul, on Wednesday and Thursday, was in the making for weeks as the countries sought a rapprochement.

Bilateral diplomatic ties and regional issues are expected to dominate the talks, but the prospect to use Israeli gas in Turkey and, more ambitiously in Europe, is also likely to come up in the meeting between the two leaders.

Erdogan has said the visit, announced first in January, will herald a “new era” and that the two countries could work together to carry Israeli natural gas to Europe, reviving an idea first discussed more than 20 years ago.

The head of the Israeli company pumping gas from a giant field in the Eastern Mediterranean said his company could supply Turkey if it provided infrastructure, but he did not comment on Erdogan’s more ambitious idea to link it to Europe.

“Our position has always been clear. If you want gas, great. We are ready to give. You build the pipeline to us and we will supply gas,” Yossi Abu, chief executive of NewMed Energy, told an investors’ conference two weeks ago, as quoted by western media.

After years of frozen ties, a 2016 reconciliation agreement saw the return of ambassadors, but it collapsed in 2018 in the wake of the Great March of Return protests. More than 200 Palestinians were killed in Israeli firing over a period of several months as Palestinian refugees protested to return to their homes in present-day Israel from where they were ethnically cleansed in 1948. The months-long protests also called for an end to the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel.

Turkey recalled its diplomats and ordered Israel’s envoy out of the country in the latter year, as the bilateral relations hit another low.

Although the Israeli president’s post is largely ceremonial and any concrete steps towards rapprochement will require approval of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Herzog’s visit marks a significant thaw in ties.

The last visit by an Israeli president to Turkey was in 2007 and the last trip by a prime minister came the following year. Erdogan and Bennett spoke in November, the first such call in years.

Ankara has close ties with the Hamas group, which the United States and European Union have designated a “terrorist” organisation. The Turkish government has hosted several senior officials in the past.

Despite visibly toning down its criticism of Israel ahead of Herzog’s visit, Ankara has ruled out abandoning its commitment to supporting Palestinian statehood.

Ankara and Tel Aviv have had ups and downs in their ties since the 1950s. But the two countries have been able to find common ground despite their differences.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog will pay a visit to Ankara on March 9 and meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In a remarkable development for both states, whose ambassadors were withdrawn from their respective hosting states in 2018, the two presidents are likely to discuss the range of issues affecting the two states. 

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), an Israeli think-tank, believes the Israel-Turkey meeting is based on Turkey’s normalisation efforts with several regional states, including the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. 

“In this respect, the rapprochement between Turkey and the UAE paved the way for the other rapprochements and for the meeting of President Herzog and President Erdogan to happen,” Lindenstrauss, an Israeli academic and an expert on Turkish foreign policy, said. 

“The mere fact that the visit is happening is a positive sign for the relations between Turkey and Israel. The next step should be the return of ambassadors to Ankara and Tel Aviv, and then, at least at the formal level, we will be back to where we were after the 2016 normalisation agreement,” she says. 

The long-standing Palestinian conflict and the Arab-Israeli tensions have pushed the Ankara-Tel Aviv ties to difficult points. Still, realist diplomacy has almost always prevailed and opened the reconciliation process. 

From 2008 to 2016, Turkey-Israel tensions escalated for various reasons, from Israel’s blockade of Gaza to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unfriendly approach toward Ankara. After a normalisation agreement in 2016, ties have gotten worse after the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2018. 

But as the anti-Netanyahu government came into power last year, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister was gone, creating a new opportunity for both states to start a new beginning. Also, different normalisation efforts between Turkey and the UAE and Israel and Gulf states across the Middle East have recently created a positive atmosphere for reconciliation. 

“There is a need to use the current meeting between the presidents for the purpose of rebuilding trust between the sides,” says Lindenstrauss. 

Mustafa Fatih Yavuz, a Jerusalem-based political analyst, also sees the upcoming meeting as “a confidence-building measure,” which can pave the way for the instalment of a full normalisation process. 

“Even after their meetings, possibly, the two states can declare that they will send their ambassadors back to Turkey and Israel,” Yavuz said. 

Despite political differences, “Turkey is a potential ally and a significant partner in our region,” says Yoram Schweitzer, a former member of the Israeli intelligence community who now heads the Program on Terrorism and Low-Intensity Conflict at the INSS, referring to Israel-Turkey ties. 

Seeing Turkey’s positive approach, “Israel tries to send political signals to Turkey to re-coordinate the relationship,” Schweitzer told. 

“There are a number of benefits for both sides to have a dialogue. Turkey as an exceptional country continues to have a rare capability to talk to different sides,” a prominent member of Turkey’s Jewish community, whose members will also meet Herzog during his meeting, said. 

The sides also find each other on the same page regarding the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Both Turkey and Israel are simultaneously mediating between Moscow and Kiev to address the bloody conflict. 

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett went to Moscow last weekend, where he spoke directly to Putin. Turkey will also host a meeting between Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers on Thursday, with the aim of ceasing hostilities. 

“Both states are not acting like Western states currently do in regard to the Ukraine conflict. Turkey and Israel want to have good terms with both Russia and Ukraine for their own reasons. In the meeting, they might talk about how the two states can work together to mediate between Moscow and Kiev,” Yavuz says. 

Their possible joint mediation on Ukraine can help them place their confidence-building measures on “a faster track,” according to Yavuz. 

Lindenstrauss also believes the Ukraine fight is a crucial point where both Israel and Turkey can find common ground. 

“The current events will translate I believe in a focus on developments in Ukraine in the meeting. Both Israel and Turkey are trying to mediate in this conflict and bring about a cease in hostilities, and there should be some coordination between these mediation attempts,” Lindenstrauss views. 

Both Israel and Turkey will be careful to navigate their route to find a new understanding with each other, according to both experts. As a result, Yavuz says they don’t want to deal with core issues during meetings in the next two days. 

But the Palestinian issue will be on the agenda, he adds. “The Turkish side will definitely say something about that,” Yavuz says. 

Like much of the world, Turkey has long protested Israel’s illegal settlements and occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, backing Palestinian aspirations and the two-state solution. 

However, Ankara will be careful while bringing up the Palestinian issue to Herzog and avoid putting the new president in a tough spot, Yavuz says, reminding that the Israeli president is a leftist Labor party politician, who also continues to advocate the two-state solution. 

When Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin came to Israel last month for preliminary talks with Tel Aviv, he stressed the Palestinian issue, showing “Turkey’s insistence” on resolving the conflict, Yavuz says. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also emphasised the same stance. 

Yavuz says that top Turkish officials recently signalled their Israeli counterparts that Ankara would not remove the Palestinian issue from its agenda and that addressing it would help boost their bilateral ties. 

Another issue on the agenda is Iran, an anti-Israel country, which is currently trying to reach an agreement with the US to revitalise its JCPOA nuclear deal with the Western bloc – Russia and China. But the Ukraine crisis makes things difficult for Iran too. 

“Israelis want to hear positive stuff from Turkey about their conflict with Iran, hoping Ankara will join the new axis of the Abraham Accords. But I don’t think Turkey will do that,” Yavuz says. 

Turkey has some disagreements with some Mediterranean states regarding how to designate the borders of newly discovered gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel, Egypt and Greece reached an agreement to carry gas from the Mediterranean to Europe, bypassing Turkey, but the US pulled out from the project, complicating its prospects. 

Now, Israeli and Turkish leaders might also discuss how to carry gas from the region to Europe with a new understanding. “The leaders will discuss this issue. But they have not reached an agreement on it,” Yavuz says. 

Lindenstrauss thinks that Herzog sees the issue related to the gas reserves in a climate change perception and wants to develop a process on “how the actors in the eastern Mediterranean have to cooperate to mitigate this challenge.” 

Both sides will talk about trade, energy and tourism, she adds. Despite tensions, Turkish and Israeli economic ties have been strong for many years. Also, cultural ties can improve, according to Yavuz. Like many other Middle Eastern countries, Israelis also love to watch Turkish soap operas, adds Yavuz. 

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