Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went out of his way on Wednesday to publicly embrace President Isaac Herzog. Israeli flags adorned the courtyard of his palace in Ankara, Herzog’s car was escorted by mounted guards and a 21-gun salute was fired during the playing of Israel's national anthem, Hatikva.
But this festive atmosphere couldn’t paper over the legacy of the past. “We shall try to promote dialogue and examine it by deeds,” Herzog told Erdogan during their public remarks, adding that “the baggage of the past never disappears of its own accord,” but Israel and Turkey “are choosing to embark on a journey of trust and respect.”
The two agreed that a mechanism should be set up for discussing disputes to contain future conflicts and prevent another rupture.
Israelis saw a different Erdogan on Wednesday than the one familiar to them from the past decade. His vicious insults were replaced by positive, optimistic statements about the mutual advantages of cooperation. He called for increased trade and closer cooperation on energy security.
He spoke at length about the issue responsible for numerous bilateral crises in the past – the Palestinians. This was one of the main topics of his talks with Herzog, he said, adding that he had made Turkey’s feelings about this issue clear to his visitor. He also stressed the importance of reducing regional tensions and preserving the vision of a two-state solution.
Erdogan has courted the Israeli president almost obsessively since Herzog assumed office last summer. He repeatedly spoke publicly about wanting to meet with him and made several courtesy calls to him.
His reasons for wanting a closer relationship with Israel are varied. One is his desire to improve his relationships in the region in general, including with Egypt and the Gulf states. He also wants increased trade to improve Turkey’s shaky economy and a rapprochement with the Biden administration. Finally, he wants to restore Turkey’s status as a key regional player.
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Herzog wasn’t just making a state visit; he was on a diplomatic mission to improve the bilateral relationship, and he made clear that it was coordinated with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Both Israel and Turkey deemed Herzog the perfect man for the job – not just because he shares Erdogan’s title, but because he’s an experienced politician who also has a guaranteed seven-year term of office.
Moreover, Bennett and Lapid, unlike Herzog, have criticized Erdogan harshly in the past.
Nevertheless, no far-reaching diplomatic gestures were announced on Wednesday. There was no promise to return the countries’ ambassadors, nor did Herzog publicly invite Erdogan to visit. Instead, Turkey’s foreign minister will visit Israel next month to discuss the next steps with Lapid.