Mar 9, 2022 - World

Israeli president visits Turkey to "reset" relations with Erdoğan

President Isaac Herzog of Israel (on left) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey . Photo: Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency via Getty

ANKARA, Turkey — Israeli President Isaac Herzog traveled to Ankara on Wednesday to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to try to "reset" Israel's relations with Turkey.

Why it matters: It's the first visit by a senior Israeli official to the Turkish capital in 14 years and comes as Israel tries to repair the two countries' often-fraught relationship.

  • During Benjamin Netanyahu’s time as Israeli prime minister, relations with Turkey were mostly cold, with Erdoğan repeatedly lashing out at Israel over its policy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

What they're saying: After meeting Herzog, Erdoğan called the visit a turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations.

  • In his own press statement, Herzog said the grievances of the past won't disappear but that both countries are now focused on the future. "We will agree to disagree on some things, but we will solve our differences with openness and mutual respect," he said.
  • The latest: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told Axios said he will visit Israel and the Palestinian territories on April 3 to meet his Israeli counterpart and discuss the normalization of relations, including the reappointment of ambassadors.

Flashback: The last visit to Ankara by an Israeli president took place in 2007, when President Shimon Peres traveled there.

  • In 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Ankara and met Erdoğan, who was mediating between Israel and Syria in indirect peace talks.
  • A week after Olmert’s visit, a war broke out in Gaza. Erdoğan started publicly attacking Israel, and accused it of committing a massacre in Gaza. The two countries' relationship deteriorated and, despite attempts at repair, never got back to what it used to be.

The big picture: Herzog’s visit comes as Erdoğan faces domestic challenges with the Turkish economy in crisis, as well as external challenges, mainly tensions with the Biden administration.

  • Since President Biden assumed office, and even more since the new Israeli government was sworn in, Erdoğan has engaged in a charm offensive to try to court Israel.
  • That offensive was on full display in the ceremony welcoming Herzog, where the Israeli president received the highest honors according to the protocol, including a 21-canon salute.
  • Two Israeli officials told me they think Erdoğan’s attempts to improve relations are also a result of the Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration, which reconfigured alliances in the Middle East and strengthened Israel’s regional standing.

Between the lines: The Israeli government is being very cautious about the re-engagement with Turkey, due in part to past experience, according to the officials.

  • Herzog doesn’t set Israel’s foreign policy, but he does have significant international standing. His trip got the blessing of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
  • Before leaving for Ankara, Herzog told reporters he will try to “reset” the relationship and carefully rebuild it, but he stressed the need for mutual respect, a hint at Erdoğan’s past rhetoric.

What’s next: Israeli officials stressed Herzog’s visit is a first symbolic step in the rapprochement between the countries. They said after the visit there will be a pause for review, reassessment and further dialogue with the Turkish government before moving forward.

  • A major practical step, which would signal Turkish seriousness, is upgrading diplomatic relations and reappointing ambassadors in both countries.

Worth noting: Erdoğan called anti-semitism a crime against humanity in his press statement. He also emphasized that Turkey will continue to focus on the Palestinian issue.

  • Herzog raised Israel's concerns about Hamas activity inside Turkey in the meeting, an Israeli official told reporters.
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