Israeli president visits Turkey as countries recover

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Israeli President Isaac Herzog visits Turkey on Wednesday, becoming the first Israeli leader to visit in 14 years, as the two countries prepare to turn a new page in their troubled relationship.

Herzog is due to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara before traveling to Istanbul to meet Turkey’s Jewish community there.

Turkey and Israel were once close allies, but the relationship has frayed under Erdogan, who is openly critical of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. Israel, for its part, has been angered by Erdogan’s joining Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group.

The countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for Palestinians who 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 US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, again recalled its ambassador from Israel, prompting Israel to recall its envoy as well. The two countries have not yet renewed their ambassadors.

The steps towards a rapprochement with Israel come as an economically troubled Turkey tries to end its international isolation by normalizing its frayed ties with several countries in the region, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

In the first step towards reconciliation, Erdogan called Herzog by phone after the Israeli head of state took office last year and the two have had several phone conversations since then. Erdogan also spoke with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett after the release of an Israeli couple arrested in Istanbul on suspicion of spying.

Last week, Herzog traveled to Cyprus where he assured that the warming of Israel’s relations with Turkey would not come at the expense of ties with Nicosia. During a visit to Greece last month, Herzog made similar remarks, insisting that Israel would continue to expand cooperation with Greece and Cyprus, both of which have strained relations with Turkey.

Israel’s ties with Greece and Cyprus have grown following the discovery of large deposits of natural gas in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean as the countries seek ways to boost energy cooperation.

Turkey for its part said there would be no change in Ankara’s stance towards the Palestinians despite normalization efforts with Israel.