Israel’s president is set to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the capital, Ankara, as the countries seek to mend fractured ties during the first visit by an Israeli leader since 2008.
The two countries have traded accusations constantly over Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and Ankara’s support for the Hamas group, which governs the Gaza Strip.
However, President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Ankara and Istanbul, on Wednesday and Thursday, was in the making for weeks as the countries sought a rapprochement.
Bilateral diplomatic ties and regional issues are expected to dominate the talks, but the prospect to use Israeli gas in Turkey and, more ambitiously in Europe, is also likely to come up in the meeting between the two leaders.
Erdogan has said the visit, announced first in January, will herald a “new era” and that the two countries could work together to carry Israeli natural gas to Europe, reviving an idea first discussed more than 20 years ago.
The head of the Israeli company pumping gas from a giant field in the Eastern Mediterranean said his company could supply Turkey if it provided infrastructure, but he did not comment on Erdogan’s more ambitious idea to link it to Europe.
“Our position has always been clear. If you want gas, great. We are ready to give. You build the pipeline to us and we will supply gas,” Yossi Abu, chief executive of NewMed Energy, told an investors’ conference two weeks ago, as quoted by the Reuters news agency.
The 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 in Israeli firing over 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 the latter year, 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.
Ankara has close ties with the Hamas group, which the United States and European Union have designated a “terrorist” organisation. The Turkish government has hosted several senior officials in the past.
Despite visibly toning down its criticism of Israel ahead of Herzog’s visit, Ankara has ruled out abandoning its commitment to supporting Palestinian statehood.