Visit of Turkish Foreign Minister to Israel

Israeli and Turkish representatives are both expected to attend the May 10 spring meeting of the International Palestine Donor Group (AHLC). But apart from the discussion expected this week in Brussels, Ankara has been reluctant lately to make public reference to the Palestinian question. On the contrary, he is focusing considerable diplomatic efforts on rapprochement with Israel. Diplomats in Jerusalem told Al-Monitor they do not expect any skirmishes with their Turkish colleagues in Brussels, despite ongoing Israeli-Palestinian tensions in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount.

Over the past year, Ankara had stepped up its rapprochement efforts. Reluctant at first, Jerusalem is certainly warming to the idea. We reported here last month that Israel is no longer silent on Turkey‘s charm offensive. In fact, it seems that Israel has decided to play the game, and see how far Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will go.

On May 4, the Turkish daily Sabah published an article entitled “Turkey-Israel rapprochement opens doors for cooperatives in several fields”.

President Isaac Herzog’s office on May 5 released a list of heads of state who had congratulated Israel on its 74th Independence Day. The fourth name on this list – after US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping – was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – ahead of Indian President Ram Nath Kovind and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

“In the new period of our relations, heralded by Your Excellency’s visit to our country in March, I sincerely believe that cooperation between our countries will develop in a way that serves our mutual national interests, as well as peace and regional stability,” says the letter sent by Erdogan to Herzog.

Herzog called Erdogan to thank him for the congratulatory letter, wishing Erdogan and the Turkish people a happy Eid al-Fitr. He said they should continue to work on cooperation with each other for the benefit of both nations. According to an official Israeli statement, the two leaders discussed on the phone the importance of an open and continued dialogue to maintain calm and stability across the region, especially at this time, with Erdogan expressing his hopes that ” the festival of Eid al-Fitr to bring joy, peace and affinity throughout the region.”

These exchanges between Herzog and Erdogan came shortly after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that he would visit Israel on May 24.

Jerusalem awaits Cavusoglu’s visit with some trepidation. While Erdogan had established Herzog as his main interlocutor, thus avoiding any contact with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the Turkish minister will have to deal directly with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Certainly, from the Turkish point of view, the right-wing pro-settler Bennett is more complicated to deal with publicly than the centrist Lapid. Yet over the years, Lapid has made no secret of his criticism of Ankara over the presence in the country of senior Hamas figures.

We have mentioned here a very significant first step that Ankara took on April 26 in this specific direction, to appease Jerusalem. Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that Hamas members based in Turkey and traveling abroad were not allowed to return to the country. Importantly, this announcement was apparently not just a statement of intent, but linked to a specific list of Hamas operatives in Turkey whom Jerusalem had transferred to Ankara, demanding their ban from the country.

Cavusoglu will visit both Jerusalem and Ramallah to maintain a diplomatic balance and ward off Palestinian criticism of the recent rapprochement with Israel. While in Israel, he is expected to discuss a wide range of issues, including possible energy cooperation. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez is likely to accompany Cavusoglu on his trip, pointing out exactly that.

The war in Ukraine obviously aggravated the energy issue. The amounts drilled off the Israeli coast are small compared to global needs, but it seems the time has come for Israeli-Turkish energy cooperation. In fact, on January 18, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the State Department informed Israel, Greece and Cyprus that the United States no longer supported the EastMed gas pipeline project. Ankara took this as a sign that the United States might support joint Israeli-Turkish energy projects.

The energy issue is sensitive for Israel because of the trilateral security alliance it has concluded in recent years with Greece and Cyprus. That being said, the most important issue for Israel during Cavusoglu’s visit will be the issue of ambassadors. Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador in 2018, forcing Israel to operate in the same way and expel the Turkish mission chief. The reinstatement of the ambassadors would be the ultimate sign that a real process of rapprochement is underway.

A 2020 report had suggested that Ankara had decided to send its ambassador back to Tel Aviv and was ready to appoint Ufuk Ulutas, chairman of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Strategic Research Center, as its new envoy. Yet since then, full relations have not been restored. The very experienced diplomat Irit Lillian has been charge d’affaires at the Israeli embassy in Ankara for several months. Sources in Jerusalem told Al-Monitor that Lillian was extremely instrumental in restoring channels of dialogue with her Turkish counterparts at the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the Presidential Palace.

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