Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprised Israelis this week by revealing talks about a possible visit from President Isaac Herzog during a conversation with journalists. On Thursday, the Turkish foreign minister called his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid to inquire about his health, after the latter had recovered from COVID. It was the first conversation between the foreign ministers, and was merely a cordial formality.
Indeed, Erdogan and other Turkish officials have been sending hints for several months that they are interested in resetting relations with Israel. Jerusalem so far remains suspicious.
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“We’re being careful,” a senior Israeli diplomat said. It is possible relations could improve, but slowly and cautiously. Israel is wary of Erdogan’s fickle personality and unwavering support for the Palestinians. Israel suspects Erdogan would use improved relations to help Turkey’s economy and bolster his regional influence.
“The Turks are moving to advance relations simultaneously with a few states in the region,” says Dr. Nimrod Goren, president of Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “The significant move on their part is with the UAE. They’re signing agreements with them for a lot of money and the Emirates are beginning to invest in the Turkish economy. The possibility of three-way projects – Israel-Turkey-UAE – has also been raised. It’s supposed to increase Israel’s benefit from improving relations with Turkey and ensure the Emirates won’t object.”
Erdogan and UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan agreed at a recent meeting in Ankara on investing around $10 billion in Turkey, which is suffering an acute economic crisis. Erdogan said he would advance ties with Israel and Egypt to develop more export routes for his country.
The Turkish-Israeli relationship has largely deteriorated over the past decade. During their last diplomatic crisis in 2018, Turkey deported the Israeli ambassador and humiliated him with a security check in response to the killing of 61 Palestinians during protests along the border with Gaza. Turkey also withdrew its own ambassador.
“You don’t make up with antisemites like Erdogan,” Yair Lapid said angrily at the time. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who was a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government at the time, said that the Turkish president was “soaked with Hamas terror.”
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The countries have yet to reinstate ambassadors, but neither have they downgraded their level of relations, so there is no obstacle to sending them back at any given time.
Erdogan has sounded more moderate in recent statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which ignited the crises of the past decade. He said during a visit to Qatar in December that Israel must “show sensitivity on the Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa issue, and we’ll do our best to take steps (toward Israel).” He added, “The Israeli side knows our fears, and we know theirs, so we can solve the problem (between us) on this basis.”
Dr. Goren explained, “The disagreements between Israel and Turkey on the Palestinian issue will remain and keep causing tension as long as there’s no progress in the peace process. But Erdogan is signaling that meanwhile cooperation on other issues can move ahead.”
Erdogan has sought out ways to strengthen ties with Israel, even before the Bennett-Lapid government began its term. The arrest of the Oknin couple in November provided an opportunity to break the ice.
Bennett spoke for the first time with Erdogan and thanked him for his personal involvement in freeing the couple. Officials surmised that Turkey’s unconditional release of the two could pave the way to exchanging ambassadors. This has not happened yet. Bennett’s talk with Erdogan was the first between the Turkish leader and an Israeli prime minister since 2013. In that year, Netanyahu called Erdogan during President Obama’s visit to Israel to apologize for killing the Turkish citizens on the Gaza flotilla in 2010, which caused relations between the two states to deteriorate.
Following Bennett and Lapid’s past statements, Erdogan appears to have picked Herzog as the point person for talks between the states. The two have held three conversations in the past three months. The first was in the summer, a few days after Herzog entered office. The second followed the release of the Oknin couple, and the third was last week, when Erdogan made a condolence call after Herzog’s mother died.
But the meeting between them is still far from a done deal. No place or date has been set and certain officials in Jerusalem are warning of Erdogan’s unexpected temper, which can lead him to cancel the event at the last moment.
Goren believes Israel’s coolness toward Turkey could harm relations between the states. “I think it’s a mistake. We could miss an opportunity because of it,” he said. “Israel doesn’t trust Erdogan, because of the last years’ crises, but preventing diplomatic progress because of it is superfluous.
"The Turks have signaled to us for a year, in one way or another, their willingness to improve relations. But the Israeli government lacks a senior figure with motivation to act on the issue. This leaves Herzog as the leading figure. But the moment when Bennett will have to make a decision is approaching. The government is cautious in this regard, although reinstating the ambassadors can be done quite easily and serve Israeli interests.”
One way or another, Israel wants the possible rapprochement with Turkey not to harm the warm relations it has with Greece and Cyprus, which both have tense relations with Turkey.
A diplomatic source told Haaretz that the three states are working together to try to warm up relations with Turkey. Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos came on a visit to Israel on Thursday. His host, Benny Gantz, stressed Israel’s commitment to Greece.
“Israel’s commitment to security cooperation with Greece is based on joint interests and values. We’ll continue to deepen and widen them in every scenario and every development in the area,” Gantz said. “There is great potential to expand Israel’s cooperation with its old and new friends in the region in energy, innovation and defense. We’ll continue to strengthen the three-way framework between Israel, Greece and Cyprus.”