ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Israeli President Isaac Herzog visits Turkey on Wednesday, becoming the first Israeli leader to visit in 14 years as the two countries prepare to turn a new page in their troubled relationship.
Herzog is due to speak with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara before traveling to Istanbul for meetings with members of Turkey’s Jewish community.
Turkey and Israel were once close allies, but the relationship has frayed under Erdogan, who is openly critical of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. Israel has also been angered by Erdogan’s membership in Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group.
The countries withdrew their respective ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for Palestinians that broke an Israeli blockade. The incident resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists.
Relations broke down again in 2018 when Turkey, angered by the US moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, once again recalled its ambassador, prompting Israel to respond accordingly. The two countries have not renewed their ambassadors.
The steps towards a rapprochement with Israel come as an economically troubled Turkey tries to end its international isolation by normalizing relations with several countries in the Middle East region, including Egypt, the Emirates United Arabs and Saudi Arabia.
“We won’t agree on everything, and the relationship between Israel and Turkey has certainly had its ups and downs and not-so-simple moments in recent years,” Herzog said before he left. “But we will try to revive our relationship and build it in a measured and careful way, and with mutual respect between our states.”
In Istanbul, a group of around 150 people, mostly members of pro-Islamist groups, protested Herzog’s visit, chanting anti-Israel slogans and holding banners calling the Israeli president a “killer”.
Among the protesters were members of the Turkish Islamic relief group IHH, which organized the Gaza-bound flotilla that broke the Israeli blockade in 2010.
In a step towards reconciliation, Erdogan called Herzog by phone after the Israeli head of state took office last year. The two have had several phone conversations since then. Erdogan also spoke with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett after the release of an Israeli couple arrested in Istanbul on suspicion of spying.
During a visit to Cyprus last week, Herzog assured that the warming of Israel’s relations with Turkey would not come at the expense of ties with Nicosia. Herzog made similar remarks in Greece last month, insisting that Israel would continue to expand cooperation with Greece and Cyprus, both of which have strained relations with Turkey.
Israel’s ties with Greece and Cyprus have blossomed following the discovery of large deposits of natural gas in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, and the countries are looking for ways to strengthen energy-based cooperation.
Turkey said there would be no change in Ankara’s stance towards the Palestinians despite normalization efforts with Israel.
Fraser reported in Antalya, Turkey.