President Isaac Herzog has yet to respond to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's invitation to Ankara next month, a move Israeli sources are attributing to Israel's suspicion of recent Turkish efforts to warm relations between the two countries.
Erdogan mentioned the potential meeting on two occasions in the past two days, calling the visit “a new chapter” between the two countries. According to a report on the Turkish news site Daily Sabah, Erdogan said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett “also has a positive approach.”
While the President’s Residence in Jerusalem has declined comment, Bennett has in fact provided a glimpse into the reservations of Israeli politicians regarding Turkish efforts at a rapprochement. “I don’t rule out the meeting of our president with Erdogan,” Bennett told Haaretz’s Yossi Verter over the weekend. He expressed doubts about Turkey’s intentions but said he prefers to “play in all courts, to lead to stability in the Middle East and focus efforts on Iran.
“I have no illusions about Turkey,” Bennett told Verter. “I saw what happened in moments of crisis in Gaza. We know the dynamics very well.”
“Suspicion” remains the key word in Israel’s efforts to decode Erdogan’s intentions. Ties between Turkey and Israel have known mainly downturns over the past decade. During the last crisis, in May 2018, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and humiliated him in a security check in protest of the killing of 61 Palestinians in the clash with Gaza that month. The Turkish ambassador to Israel also left the country in the context of that crisis.
In recent months, while dealing with Turkey's major economic crisis, Erdogan has intensified his courtship of Israel. Every few weeks he publicly expresses his desire to put ties between the two countries back on track; he has spoken with Herzog by phone three times, including to congratulate him on his presidency and to offer condolences after the death, earlier this month, of his mother, Aura Herzog. Erdogan spoke with Bennett once after the release of the Oknins, an Israeli couple that were jailed in Turkey while vacationing there in November who were accused of spying.
Last week Turkey’s foreign minister called his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid – who has in the past come out against improving ties with Turkey – after Lapid contracted COVID-19.
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Israel sees Erdogan’s actions in the Oknin affair, as well as his efforts in recent weeks to restrict Hamas activities in Turkey, as demonstrating his seriousness. “Erdogan is showing very positive signals in fighting terror and in his actions vis-a-vis Hamas in Turkey, said an official familiar with the recent contacts between the two countries. “This is very significant because from our perspective this is one of the main issues that prevent us from upgrading relations – the fact that he hosts a terror organization.”
An Israeli official described the potential meeting with Herzog as a “litmus test” for the seriousness of the Turkish president’s intentions. “A meeting at the level of presidents is a proportional meeting. It is a tool that can be used. The president is a symbolic figure, not a political one, and in any case Herzog is conducting his own talks with the Turks. One can start with such a channel and then check the developments and implications, all at a slow pace." Another official said: “The decision is coming together to turn ties with Turkey from ‘frozen’ to ‘cool.’ All kinds of symbolic things can happen. For example, an exchange of ambassadors or economic deals. But we won’t move ahead without clear things in return from Turkey.”
Israeli officials say that strengthening ties with Turkey will not come at the expense of Israel’s Greek and Cypriot allies, who have already been apprised of the possibility. These two countries “did not express opposition to a warming of ties. Israel made clear that security cooperation with them would continue and they themselves are advancing dialogue with Erdogan,” an official familiar with the contacts said.