By Tuvan Gumrukcu
ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey and Israel will seek to overcome years of animosity and insults when their presidents meet for the first time in more than a decade this week, expanding a recent Turkish charm offensive with regional rivals.
The two countries have traded accusations over Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and Ankara’s support for the militant Islamist group Hamas which governs Gaza. Diplomatic ties hit a low in 2018 when they expelled ambassadors.
Turkey’s efforts to repair its frayed relations in the Middle East led President Tayyip Erdogan to announce in January that he had invited Israeli President Isaac Herzog for Wednesday’s talks, which both sides say will explore ways to deepen cooperation.
Erdogan has said the visit will herald a “new era” and that the two countries could work together to carry Israeli natural gas to Europe, reviving an idea first discussed more than 20 years ago.
The head of the Israeli firm pumping gas from a giant field in the east Mediterranean said his company could supply Turkey if it provided infrastructure, though he did not comment on Erdogan’s more ambitious idea to link it to Europe.
“Our position has always been clear. If you want gas, great. We are ready to give. You build the pipeline to us and we will supply gas,” Yossi Abu, chief executive of NewMed Energy, told an investors conference two weeks ago.
Gas supplies from the Mediterranean could ease European dependence on Russian gas. Plans for a subsea pipeline from the east Mediterranean to Europe, excluding Turkey, have stalled after the United States expressed misgivings in January.
Turkey imports most of its energy but has announced a discovery of 540 billion cubic metres of natural gas in the Black Sea and hopes to extract it next year.
A TENSE DECADE
Although his post is largely ceremonial and any concrete steps towards rapprochement will require approval of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Herzog’s visit marks a significant thaw in ties.
The last visit by an Israeli president to Turkey was in 2007 and the last trip by a prime minister came the following year. Erdogan and Bennett spoke in November, the first such call in years.
Relations cratered in 2010 when Israeli commandos enforcing a naval blockade of Gaza killed 10 Turkish activists during a raid on the Mavi Marmara boat, which was carrying aid to the enclave.
Through the years of animosity, the countries have maintained trade, which stood at $6.7 billion in 2021, up from $5 billion in 2019 and 2020, according to official data.
Turkey has hosted several senior officials from Hamas, which the United States and European Union have designated a terrorist organisation. Despite visibly toning down its criticism of Israel ahead of Herzog’s visit, it has ruled out abandoning its commitment to supporting Palestinian statehood.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas political official in Turkey, told Reuters that ties between the group and Ankara were “stable” and that media reports about Turkey pressuring Hamas to rein in its criticism of Israel were “unfounded and incorrect.”
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Steven Scheer and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, and Nidal Al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Dominic Evans and Raissa Kasolowsky)