Israel and Turkey hail new era in relations, but divisions remain

The countries agree to rebuild their relationship after years of tensions, as Isaac Herzog became the first Israeli president to visit Turkey in 14 years.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog shake hands during a joint news conference in Ankara, Turkey
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, right, and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog shake hands during a joint news conference in Ankara, Turkey [Reuters]

Israel and Turkey have announced a new era in relations following more than a decade of diplomatic rupture, as Israeli President Isaac Herzog made a landmark visit to the Turkish capital, Ankara.

Herzog’s Turkey trip, which included talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, was the first by an Israeli president since 2007, when the late Shimon Peres addressed the Turkish parliament.

Appearing before cameras following the talks, Erdogan described Israeli president’s visit as “historic” and “a turning point” in Turkish-Israeli relations. He said Turkey was ready to cooperate with Israel in the energy sector, adding that the Turkish foreign and energy ministers would soon visit Israel for more talks on increased cooperation.

“Our common goal is to revitalise political dialogue between our countries based on common interests and respect for mutual sensitivities,” Erdogan said

The visit was a “very important moment for the relations between our countries, and a great honour for the two of us to lay the foundations of developing friendly relations between our countries and nations, and to build bridges essential to us all”, Herzog said in a statement in Hebrew.

Both leaders conceded, however, that differences remain — not least on the issue of the Palestinians.

“We expressed the importance we attach to reducing tensions in the region and preserving the vision of a two-state solution,” Erdogan said. “I underlined the importance we attach to the historical status of Jerusalem and the preservation of the religious identity and sanctity of Masjid Aqsa,” the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s historic Old City.

Israel captured East Jerusalem with its Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites — the emotional ground zero of the more than century-long conflict — in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move unrecognised by most of the international community. The Palestinian leadership has often sought East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state including the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“We must agree in advance that we will not agree on everything, that is the nature of relations with a past as rich as ours,” Herzog said. “But the disagreements we will aspire to resolve with mutual respect and openness, through the proper mechanisms and systems, with a view to a shared future,” he said.

Ankara has close ties with Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. The United States and European Union have designated Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation.

And despite visibly toning down its criticism of Israel in advance of Herzog’s visit, Ankara has ruled out abandoning its commitment to supporting Palestinian statehood.

A rocky relation

Ties between the two countries have been rocky for various reasons, in particular after the death of 10 civilians in an Israeli raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship, part of a flotilla trying to breach an Israeli blockade on besieged Gaza by carrying aid into the territory in 2010.

After years of frozen ties, a 2016 reconciliation agreement saw the return of ambassadors, but it collapsed in 2018 in the wake of the Great March of Return protests. More than 200 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire across a period of several months as Palestinian refugees protested to return to their homes in present-day Israel from where they were ethnically cleansed in 1948. The months-long protests also called for an end to the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel.

Turkey recalled its diplomats and ordered Israel’s envoy out of the country in 2018, as the bilateral relations hit another low.

Although the Israeli president’s post is largely ceremonial and any concrete steps towards rapprochement will require approval of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Herzog’s visit marks a significant thaw in ties.

The last visit by an Israeli president to Turkey was in 2007 and the last trip by a prime minister came the following year. Erdogan and Bennett spoke in November, the first such call in years.

The steps towards a rapprochement with Israel come as Turkey, beset by economic troubles, has been trying to end its international isolation by improving strained ties with several countries in the region, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies