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Israel's president heads to Turkey in bid to rebuild ties

09 Mar, 2022
Israeli President Isaac Herzog stands to speak during Israel's National Day ceremony at Expo 2020 Dubai, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 31, 2022. Reuters/File
Israeli President Isaac Herzog stands to speak during Israel's National Day ceremony at Expo 2020 Dubai, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 31, 2022. Reuters/File

Jerusalem. Israel's president heads to Turkey Wednesday to meet his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the first visit by an Israeli head of state since 2007, as the countries seek to mend fractured ties.

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.

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.

Those issues include gas sales to Europe, a topic that has acquired added urgency amid the Ukraine conflict.

Relations froze after the death of 10 civilians following an Israeli raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship, part of a flotilla trying to breach an embargo by carrying aid into the Gaza Strip in 2010.

A 2016 reconciliation agreement that saw the return of ambassadors all but collapsed in 2018 in the wake of border clashes with Gaza, that saw dozens of Palestinians killed.

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 a rapprochement.

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.

Israeli leaders were wary of Turkey's outreach.

But Erdogan's move to secure the release of an Israeli couple arrested in Istanbul in November on espionage charges proved a "turning point," said Gallia Lindenstrauss of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

The matter "generated dialogue between the Israeli and Turkish side, and essentially opened the opportunity for improved relations," said Lindenstrauss, a senior researcher and Turkey expert.

Following the 2010 crisis, Israel created a strategic alliance with Greece and Cyprus, two states with long-standing acrimony towards Erdogan's Turkey, 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 has since also raised concern about the project, citing possible issues over its "commercial viability."

For Turkey, that 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, Lindenstrauss said.

And the US-brokered Abraham Accords, which saw Israel strike normalisation agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and re-establish ties with Morocco, have made it clear that this time Israel "is not the needy side of the equation" with Turkey, she told AFP.

Ukraine, Greece, Cyprus

Israeli officials have said that Herzog and Erdogan may discuss prospects of exporting Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey, a notion raised by Erdogan in January, 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 at the weekend, meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin for three hours on Saturday, and speaking to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky three times in a day.

Erdogan is also in contact with Putin and Zelensky, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is set to host his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in southern Turkey on Thursday.

Regional ties also remain sensitive, and Herzog visited both Greece and Cyprus ahead of his Turkey trip to reassure the two Israeli allies.

If Erdogan's Israel outreach "reflects more moderacy in Turkey's foreign policy, it's also good news for Greece and Cyprus," Lindenstrauss said.

Herzog also will meet with members of the Jewish community in Istanbul, before returning to Israel on Thursday.