Israel President Isaac Herzog with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Wednesday. Image Credit: Reuters

Ankara: Israel’s president met with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Wednesday, in the first visit by an Israeli head of state to Turkey since 2007, as the countries seek to mend fractured ties.

President Isaac Herzog’s trip to the Turkish capital and Istanbul was planned weeks before Ukraine crisis, but the conflict could feature at the talks, with both Israel and Turkey playing mediation roles in recent days.

But bilateral issues may dominate following more than a decade of diplomatic rupture between the Jewish state and majority Muslim Turkey, a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause.

“We will not agree on everything, and the relationship between Israel and Turkey has certainly known ups and downs and not-so-simple moments in recent years,” Herzog said before departing.

“But we shall try to restart our relations and build them in a measured and cautious manner,” he added, before a boarding a plane with “Peace and cooperation” written in Turkish on its side.

After landing Herzog and Erdogan proceeded through an honour guard at the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk mausoleum, with Herzog writing an inscription that praised Turkey’s first president as a “visionary leader” for choosing “the path of collaboration.”

Relations between the two countries were frozen after the death of 10 civilians following an Israeli raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship, part of a flotilla trying to breach a blockade by carrying aid into the Gaza Strip in 2010.

A 2016 reconciliation agreement that saw the return of ambassadors all but collapsed in 2018 in the wake of Gaza border clashes that killed dozens of Palestinians.

The rapprochement began following Herzog’s inauguration in July.

Israel’s presidency is a largely ceremonial role, but Herzog, a veteran of the left-wing Labor party, has taken on an outsized diplomatic role and has spoken to Erdogan several times in recent months.

Israeli leaders were wary of Turkey’s outreach.

But Erdogan’s move to secure the release of an Israeli couple arrested in Istanbul in November on espionage charges proved a “turning point”, said Gallia Lindenstrauss of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

The matter “opened the opportunity for improved relations”, said Lindenstrauss, a senior researcher and Turkey expert.

Following the 2010 crisis, Israel created a strategic alliance with Greece and Cyprus - two states with long-standing acrimony towards Erdogan’s Turkey - holding regular meetings and joint military drills.

The trio were part of the “East Mediterranean Gas Forum” established in 2019 with other states, including Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories - without Turkey.

In 2020, Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed the EastMed deal for a pipeline to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, triggering objections from Ankara.

For Turkey, that frustration over its exclusion from the gas talks - as well as an internal economic crisis, and a more confrontational US administration since President Joe Biden’s election - has pushed Ankara closer to Israel, Lindenstrauss said.