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The Media Line: Turkey Pushing to Thaw Relations With Israel Amid Possible Presidential Visit

High-level talks and potential visit signal possible new era in Turkish-Israel relations

The Media Line

Turkey is the more eager party in its effort to improve relations with Israel amid its crushing economic crisis, analysts told The Media Line, but there are signs that both countries are moving to strengthen ties.

The foreign ministers of each country spoke over the phone on Thursday, according to Turkey’s state news agency, the first such conversation in 13 years, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that talks were underway to have Israeli President Isaac Herzog visit Turkey.

It would be the first visit of an Israeli president to the country in more than a decade.

“There is positive momentum. … I think it helps build the trust that has been lost,” said Nimrod Goren, the president and founder of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

However, Goren cautioned that progress would be slow as there is no one in the Israeli government strongly advocating for improving ties.

He added that such a visit could pave the way to reinstate ambassadors to both countries.

Better relations “will make things that are important for both countries easier to happen, including perhaps a strategic dialogue on issues related to Syria and to Iran, to [increase] trade volume and tourism, to have more diplomatic and civilian cooperation,” Goren told The Media Line.

Relations between the two countries broke down in 2010 after the Mavi Marmara incident in which a flotilla aiming to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza was raided by Israeli forces, leaving nine Turkish citizens dead.

Ties eventually improved, but after violence in Gaza erupted over the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, Turkey and Israel each withdrew their top diplomats.

I think even many Turks who don’t like Israel feel that Turkey needs to have decent relations with Israel

Erdogan had earlier signaled that he wants to improve ties with Israel, including during a phone call in July congratulating the new Israeli president when he said the countries’ ties are important for the region.

Herzog and Erdogan held a phone call in November after the release from a Turkish prison of an Israeli couple vacationing in Turkey who were arrested and accused of being spies.

Also in July, a spokesperson for Erdogan’s party said that Turkey wanted to focus on trade and tourism, a key sector of the economy.

Alan Makovsky, a former senior Middle East staffer for the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs, told The Media Line that part of Erdogan’s motivation is to show his focus will be on domestic politics amid a struggling economy.

“For Erdogan, [the visit] is a plus politically, because it shows to the electorate that he’s calming things down in the region,” said Makovsky, who is now a senior fellow for national security and international policy at American Progress.

“I think even many Turks who don’t like Israel feel that Turkey needs to have decent relations with Israel,” he said.

Amid Turkey’s currency crisis and rising inflation, Erdogan has seen his popularity declining with a recent Metropoll survey showing the Turkish president’s popularity rating behind three opposition politicians, with the top spot polling more than 20% ahead of him.

However, Makovsky said that Erdogan would unlikely gain ground on the topic of building a gas pipeline between Turkey and Israel, especially due to Israel’s strong relations with Greece and Cyprus.

The two countries are long-time rivals of Turkey and are cooperating in an international gas forum with Israel and some of Ankara’s other regional rivals.

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line that Israel may be hesitant to move closer to Ankara because it does not want to upset Greece and Cyprus, but since Erdogan has been thawing relations with other neighbors, Israel can argue such a visit carries less weight.

In Israeli eyes the existential threat comes from Iran, and hence the tensions with Turkey are a distraction to what should be the main focus of Israel

She added that the fact that Israel has not confirmed Erdogan’s remarks about a potential visit shows Turkey is the more eager party.

Israel is still interested in improving relations with Ankara “since in Israeli eyes the existential threat comes from Iran, and hence the tensions with Turkey are a distraction to what should be the main focus of Israel,” Lindenstrauss said.

However, key obstacles remain, including Israel’s accusation that Ankara is allowing Hamas to operate in Turkey.

The analysts agreed that another key point of contention between Israel and Turkey would be the treatment of Palestinians.

Erdogan has attempted to style himself as a defender of Muslims around the world and has been especially vocal of Palestinians.

On Wednesday, the Turkish foreign ministry sent out a letter accusing Israel of undermining the possibility of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, the Turkish state news agency reported.

“As Ankara sees itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause, its harsh statements against Israel and its involvement in East Jerusalem and among Palestinians with Israeli citizenship may well hollow up a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel,” Lindenstrauss said.

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