Israeli officials view Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent proposal for a meeting in Ankara with his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog as a “proving ground” for future improvement in relations with Turkey, according to a report published on Sunday.
Erdogan said Herzog would visit in early February, but did not give further details of the trip. A spokesman for Herzog declined to comment on Erdogan’s announcement, but officials confirmed the talks during a visit, speaking on condition of anonymity.
An Israeli official quoted by the Haaretz news site described the potential meeting as an “indicator” of the Turkish president’s intentions.
“A presidential-level meeting is… a tool that can be used,” he said. “The president is a symbolic figure, not a political one, and in any case Herzog conducts his own talks with the Turks. One can start with such a channel and then check out developments and implications, all at a slow pace.
Another official said: “The decision is made to change ties with Turkey from ‘frozen’ to ‘cool’. All sorts of symbolic things can happen. For example, an exchange of ambassadors or economic agreements. But we won’t move forward without something clear in return from Turkey.
Once strong regional allies, Israel and Turkey saw their ties crumble throughout Erdogan’s tenure, during which the Turkish leader was a vocal critic of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians.
Israel, meanwhile, is upset with Erdogan’s warm relationship 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 Palestinians trying to break an Israeli blockade. Although most of the participating ships were boarded without incident, those aboard a Turkish ferry fiercely resisted the Israeli action, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish militants.
Relations slowly improved but broke down again in 2018, after Turkey, angered by the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, once again recalled its envoy from Israel, prompting Israel to return the favour.
However, an official quoted by Haaretz said Erdogan had “demonstrated his seriousness” with several recent actions taken recently: the release of Natali and Mordy Oknin – an Israeli tourist couple arrested in Turkey last year for alleged espionage – as well recent efforts to restrict Hamas activities in his country.
“Erdogan is showing very positive signals in the fight against terrorism and in his actions vis-à-vis Hamas in Turkey,” the official said. “It’s very important because from our point of view, it’s one of the main issues preventing us from improving our relations – the fact that it hosts a terrorist organization.”
Turkey – battered by an economic crisis at home – recently took steps to improve relations with regional rivals, after a reported drop in US support for a controversial Mediterranean gas pipeline.
Erdogan indicated he was seeking Turkey’s involvement in importing Israeli gas to Europe, saying there had been “some progress” on the issue in the past.
Israel and a group of countries, including Turkey’s historic rival Greece, have been working on a joint pipeline to bring gas from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Turkey has strongly opposed the project and asserted its own territorial claims to the region’s energy wealth.
Erdogan said he was resuscitating talks with Israel over an old idea of bringing Mediterranean gas to European customers via Turkey.
Officials quoted by Haaretz said better relations with Turkey will not come at the expense of Israel’s alliance with Greece and Cyprus, which were reportedly already aware of the possibility.
“These two countries have not expressed opposition to a warming of relations. Israel has made it clear that security cooperation with them will continue and they themselves are advancing dialogue with Erdogan,” an official said.