ISTANBUL – Israel is proceeding cautiously with Turkey, President Isaac Herzog said on Thursday, but is hopeful that his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is starting a positive process toward improved relations.
“My visit to Turkey as a guest of President Erdogan was very important ... in the history of the two countries and nations,” Herzog said at a news briefing in snowy Istanbul.
In light of the many ups and downs in that relationship, including many instances of hostile statements and repeated withdrawals of Turkish ambassadors from Israel in recent years, Herzog said that he “entered this process with my eyes open and in full cooperation with the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Ministry, National Security Council and others. We do not forget the past, but we are thinking about the future.”
The process of reconciliation took “some months and a lot of effort,” Herzog said, which began with Erdogan calling Herzog soon after the latter became president last year. Erdogan already invited Herzog to Ankara in that first call, said a source in Herzog’s delegation, but the new president explained that he does not have executive powers and must work in coordination with the government.
There were differences of opinion within the government over the ensuing months, but Herzog preferred to seize an opportunity for a change rather than continue the disconnect with Turkey.
“We chose the path of giving [Erdogan] a chance, and I support that very much,” the president said.
Israel sees importance in having good relations with Turkey as two of the most powerful states in the region, said the source in the president’s delegation.
Herzog and Erdogan spoke on the phone several times since then, and planning for the presidential visit began in earnest after Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz met with Erdogan’s senior adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, in December.
Erdogan welcomed Herzog to Ankara at the highest level: an honor guard with a 21-gun salute, a state dinner in the presidential palace, and more.
“The fact of the visit is what is important,” said the president, who found Erdogan to be “open to real dialogue on a variety of topics. We were going into details on topics important to both sides.”
Any suggestions that came up in the meeting “will be tested in actions in the field and by behavior of mutual respect, which is very important,” the president added.
Herzog said he proposed “a way to settle conflicts that may arise,” a mechanism that the source said would see a channel established between Kalin and Ushpiz meant to prevent a repeat of past outbursts from Erdogan against Israel.
Practical implications of the meeting will be handled by the government and not Herzog, who plans to relay what he heard in the meeting to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and others.
The source in Herzog’s delegation also referred to the confusion over Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu’s planned visit to Israel. Çavusoglu told journalists at Herzog and Erdogan’s media event that he would be visiting Israel and meeting Lapid the first week of April.
The Foreign Ministry, however, said that no such trip is planned. The source explained that the planning is taking place at the lower diplomatic level, and is not finalized yet. He also pointed out that Erdogan announced Herzog’s visit months ago, before the Israeli president was ready to confirm it, and said the meeting would be in February. Another source in Jerusalem said that the relationship with Turkey needs to be taken step by step and not rushed.
Herzog said he is “not under any illusions” about the rapprochement with Turkey, saying it is because of the interests on both sides, in light of Israel’s strong diplomatic situation in the region between the Abraham Accords and close ties with Greece and Cyprus.
The president also noted that Israel and Turkey have found themselves in a similar situation when it comes to the war in Ukraine, in that they both have an open dialogue with Ukraine and Russia and are serving a mediating role.
Herzog was satisfied with the major Turkish media coverage of his trip, with photos on the covers of many newspapers and his welcome aired on the TV news, which he saw as a sign of a change in direction, said the source in his delegation.
Herzog said his vision is that when “a 10-year-old who sees a picture on the Internet of the president of the State of Israel with a leader of a Muslim country or a leader with a keffiyeh [in the United Arab Emirates], that will broadcast a message of hope and an alternative to all those who think that conflict and violence will bring results. I hope I am contributing to that.”