Top Israeli Diplomat to Visit Turkey as Rapprochement Gains Pace

Ramping up dialogue between the two countries, Foreign Ministry's director and his Turkish counterpart will discuss Syria, Russia, Gaza and the West Bank as last year’s thaw continues.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses district governors in Ankara, January 10, 2017.
Kayhan Ozer / Presidential Palace/ Handout via Reuters

Foreign Ministry director general Yuval Rotem is due to visit Ankara in two weeks to ramp up the dialogue between the two countries, the latest step of improved relations that were stung when Israeli commandos raided a Turkish flotilla to Gaza in 2010.

This is the first time such a dialogue will take place between the Israeli and Turkish foreign ministries since the May 2010 raid in which eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish American were killed.

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A senior Israeli official says the talks between Rotem and his Turkish counterpart will touch on issues including the Syrian civil war, ties with Russia and the situation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. It will also focus on forging a plan to rekindle the relations that were in a deep freeze and in certain areas in retreat for more than six years.

Israeli and Turkish diplomats say other key issues are on the agenda such as updating the free-trade agreement signed 20 years ago, and granting Turks a visa exemption for travel to Israel.

According to the Israeli official, a week later, on February 7, Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Nabi Avci will visit Israel and take part in an international tourism expo in Tel Aviv. Avci will be the first Turkish minister to visit Israel in more than seven years. He will also meet with his Israeli tourism counterpart, Yariv Levin.

Since a Turkish-Israeli reconciliation agreement was signed in July, there has been one meeting between ministers from the two countries. In October, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz met with his Turkish counterpart at an international conference in Istanbul; the two discussed cooperation on the natural gas that Israel is producing in the Mediterranean.

According to the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah on Wednesday, Ankara says the next Turkish minister to visit Israel might be Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Such a visit would be highly symbolic; the last Turkish foreign minister to visit Israel was Abdullah Gul about a decade ago.

In the past 24 hours there have been several reports in the Turkish media about Ankara’s plans to boost relations with Israel. A senior Israeli official says recent media briefings by Turkish officials were not coordinated with Israel and indicate the Turks’ genuine desire to improve ties quickly.

In a speech Monday to ambassadors in Ankara, Cavusoglu cited a normalization with Israel as a key plank in his country’s foreign policy.

In briefings to the Turkish media, Turkish diplomats said improved relations with Israel did not change Ankara's position on the Palestinian issue. They said the Palestinians would be the main beneficiaries of any improvement in ties.

The diplomats said the aim was to expand relations with Israel in tourism, culture and sports, which continued during the long crisis and were not seriously marred by the deterioration in diplomatic and security relations. The diplomats said Turkey sought to improve its diplomatic, military and economic cooperation with Israel.

On November 15, as part of the normalization process, Eitan Naeh was appointed Israel’s ambassador to Turkey. On December 6, Naeh presented his credentials to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At the same time, Turkish diplomat Kemal Okem was appointed ambassador to Israel, and on December 12, he presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin.

The ambassadorial appointments come after more than five years when relations between the two countries were conducted at a low level.