Israel, Turkey vow to heal rift despite sharp differences

Turkey and Israel have agreed to rebuild their relationship despite their differences

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey and Israel agreed on Wednesday to rebuild their relationship despite their differences, as Israel's President Isaac Herzog became the first Israeli leader to visit Turkey in 14 years.

Appearing before cameras following talks with Herzog, Turkish President Recep Tayyip 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 revitalize political dialogue between our countries based on common interests and respect for mutual sensitivities,” Erdogan said.

Herzog said his visit constitutes a “very important moment” in relations, allowing the countries to “build bridges essential to us all.”

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 Mideast war and annexed it in a move unrecognized by most of the international community. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as capital of a future state along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israelis and Palestinians have not held substantive peace negotiations to reach a two-state solution to the conflict in over a decade.

Herzog said: “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.”

“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.

Turkey and Israel once were close allies, but the relationship frayed under Erdogan, who is an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Israel also has been angered by Erdogan’s embrace of Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group.

The countries withdrew their respective ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for Palestinians that broke an Israeli blockade. The incident resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists.

Relations broke down again in 2018 when Turkey, angered by the U.S. moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, once more recalled its ambassador, prompting Israel to respond in kind. The two countries have not reappointed their ambassadors.

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

Earlier, Herzog arrived at the Turkish presidential palace in the capital, Ankara, escorted by a Turkish mounted color guard. Erdogan and a military honor guard greeted him as a band played the Israeli anthem for the first time since 2008.

Herzog arrived on a plane emblazoned with the words “peace," “future” and "partnership” in Hebrew, Turkish and English.

In Istanbul, a group of about 150 people, mostly members of pro-Islamist groups, protested Herzog’s visit, chanting anti-Israeli slogans and holding banners calling the Israeli president a “killer.”

The protesters included members of the Turkish Islamic relief group IHH, which organized the Gaza-bound flotilla that broke the Israeli blockade in 2010.

In a step toward reconciliation, Erdogan called Herzog by phone after the Israeli head of state took office last year. The two have held several telephone conversations since then. Erdogan has also spoken to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett following the release of an Israeli couple who were arrested in Istanbul on suspicion of spying.

During a visit to Cyprus last week, Herzog offered reassurance that Israel’s warming relation with Turkey would not come at the expense of ties with Nicosia. Herzog made similar remarks in Greece last month, insisting Israel would continue to expand its cooperation with Greece and Cyprus, which both have tense relations with Turkey.

Israel’s ties with Greece and Cyprus blossomed following the discovery of sizeable natural gas deposits in eastern Mediterranean waters and the countries are looking for ways to build on energy-based cooperation.

Herzog is scheduled to meet with members of Turkey’s Jewish community in Istanbul on Thursday.

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Fraser reported from Antalya, Turkey. Ilan Ben Zion contributed from Jerusalem.