Jan 26, 2022 - World

Israeli president plans to accept invitation to visit Erdoğan

Erdoğan awaits the arrival of Vladimir Putin in Ankara, 2019. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Erdoğan awaits the arrival of Vladimir Putin in Ankara, 2019. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Israel and Turkey are negotiating the terms of a visit by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Ankara that could take place in the near future, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Such a visit would be a major breakthrough in the frozen relationship between the two countries.

  • Israeli-Turkish relations have gone through a series of crises over the past decade, most recently in 2018 when the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem and Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara.
  • Since President Biden assumed office, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — who has also reached out to rivals like Egypt and the UAE — has been sending signals that he wants to turn a new page in the relationship.
  • Erdoğan used a congratulatory phone call after Herzog was inaugurated last July to start engaging directly with Israel. They have spoken on the phone three times since, including once earlier this month.

Behind the scenes: According to the Israeli officials, Erdoğan told Herzog during the calls that he would like to host him in Ankara. That led to an internal discussion among Israeli foreign policy officials about whether Herzog should accept.

  • Last week, Erdoğan revealed the invitation publicly, said the visit could take place soon, and said Turkey’s relations with Israel shouldn't be managed as a quarrel.
  • Days later, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid to wish him a speedy recovery from COVID. This was the first phone call between Israeli and Turkish foreign ministers in 13 years.

What they're saying: A senior Israeli official said Herzog's visit wouldn't happen right away but it was not a question of if, but how and when.

  • "If a leader of an important Muslim country like Turkey reaches out to Israel, there is no option other than giving a positive answer," the senior Israeli official said.
  • The senior official added that Israel had sent messages in recent weeks to reassure Greece and Cyprus that rapprochement with their rival Turkey wouldn't come at the expense of Israel's partnerships with them.

Between the lines: Israeli officials see Erdoğan’s moves to repair relations with Israel as a means to improve his relations with the Biden administration ahead of the elections in Turkey and amid a growing economic crisis.

  • One major impediment will be the Turkish government's relationship with Hamas, which operates freely in Turkey. Israel claims the militant group directs attacks from a headquarters in Istanbul.
  • Israel's Shin Bet intelligence agency stressed in the internal discussions about Turkey that any normalization process must include limiting Hamas activity in Turkey, according to the Israeli officials.

Flashback: During past efforts to repair relations, it had typically been Israel doing the outreach and Erdoğan making demands, particularly over Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.

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