ANKARA – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that he believes Israel and Turkey are entering a new era of mutual ties after meeting with President Isaac Herzog in Ankara during the first visit by an Israeli leader to Turkey since 2008.
On the Palestinian issue, Erdogan said he raised his concerns in his meeting with Herzog, and stressed the need to improve the Palestinian economy as well as "the preservation of al-Aqsa." Two states living side by side remains an important goal, he added.
Erdogan also said "I reiterated our position that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity," and added that Turkey is ready to cooperate with Israel in the energy sector.
Speaking after Erdogan, Herzog said he believes relations with Turkey will be based on "mutual respect" from now on.
Herzog and Erdogan both said that the Turkish foreign minister is expected to visit Israel in April to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to resume high-level diplomatic ties after four years without ambassadors.
Amid Turkey's worsening economic crisis, Erdogan also stressed his hope that trade between the two, which currently stands at 8.5 billion dollars, will surpass ten billion this year.
Addressing the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the other side of the Black Sea, Herzog thanked Erdogan for his diplomatic efforts to end the fighting, noting that Israel is also "working to the best of its ability."
- Herzog-Erdogan Meeting Could Be the End of the Age of Hostility
- The Biggest Winner in Ukraine So Far: Turkey’s Erdogan
- Israel's Herzog in Cyprus to Ease Concerns Ahead of Turkey Visit
Before departing for Turkey, Herzog said that "Israel-Turkey relations are important for the whole region," stressing the need for "maintaining stability and partnership" at a time when "the international order is being shaken."
Israel and Turkey have sought in recent months to restore their bilateral ties after years of fraught relations. "We will not agree on everything, and the relationship between Israel and Turkey has certainly known ups and downs ... but we shall try to restart our relations," Herzog said.
"I hope that in the wake of my visit, a serious process will begin with Turkey ... and that ultimately we will see, so I hope, progress in our relations and positive results,” he added.
Accompanied by his wife Michal, Herzog laid a wreath at the tomb of the founding father of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – writing in the mausoleum's guest book that he hoped for a "safer and more stable world" and region – before meeting privately with Erdogan. The two leaders will also deliver a joint statement to the public in Israel and Turkey.
Hamas criticized Herzog's visit, expressing concern over visits by "leaders from the Zionist entity in a number of Arab and Islamic countries." The group, which has offices in Turkey and sees it as one of its key allies in the region alongside Qatar, avoided harsh condemnation of Erdogan. Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports in recent weeks have suggested that Turkey is working to shutter Hamas offices in the country in light of its rapprochement with Israel, allegations which Hamas has denied.
Erdogan has been pushing in recent months for warmer ties with Israel. He has conveyed multiple public messages in the media about his desire to meet with Herzog and strengthen ties with him. The efforts to renew ties come against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis in Turkey and Erdogan’s simultaneous efforts to upgrade diplomatic ties with other countries in the region, first and foremost Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Erdogan's statements have been met with a great deal of suspicion in Israel, as he's known to be erratic in his relationship with Israel and has sought to become a symbolic patron to the Palestinian people. In January, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett revealed a glimpse of the misgivings behind Israel’s political world. “I don’t rule out the meeting between our president and Erdogan,” he told Haaretz’s Yossi Verter in an interview. However, Bennett made clear that he preferred to focus on the Iran issue, and to play many fields in an effort to achieve a stable Middle East. “I have no illusions with regard to Turkey,” Bennett said in the interview. “I saw what happened in moments of crisis in Gaza. We are very familiar with all the dynamics.”
Ties between Turkey and Israel have had their ups and downs over the past decade. In the most recent crisis in May 2018, Turkey expelled 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 ambassador at that time.
Since Herzog became president in the summer, a channel of dialogue opened between him and Erdogan, and they have spoken over the phone a few times. The first time Erdogan called to congratulate Herzog on his election; the second time, Herzog spoke with Erdogan in an attempt to secure the release of an Israeli couple, Natalie and Mordi Oknin, who had been arrested in Turkey. The third time, Erdogan called to express his condolences over the death of Herzog’s mother. Bennett also spoke to Erdogan to thank him for his personal involvement in the release of the Oknins, in the first conversation between a Turkish leader and an Israeli prime minister since 2013.
Israel avoided upgrading its ties with Turkey out of fear that it would damage the strategic alliance achieved in recent years with Greece and Cyprus. Over the past two weeks, ahead of the meeting with Erdogan, Herzog visited both countries to convey a conciliatory message to their leaders and ensure that their close ties with Israel would be maintained. Historic tension between Cyrus, Greece and Turkey has grown in recent years due to the struggle over natural gas resources off the coast of Cyprus.
Herzog will be in Turkey until Thursday. At the same time, Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers are expected to be meeting in Turkey for the first time since the war broke out. Herzog will not be in Antalya, where the meeting is set to take place. He is expected to be in Ankara and Istanbul, where he will meet with members of the Turkish Jewish community before returning to Israel.
Reuters contributed to this article.