Turkish FM makes rare visit to Israel as nations mend ties

AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visits the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

JERUSALEM (AP) — Turkey’s foreign minister visited Israel on Wednesday as part of ongoing efforts to improve ties between the two countries, which have often been bitterly divided in recent years over Turkey’s support for the Palestinians.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, on the first official visit to Israel by a Turkish official in 15 years, said that normalizing ties with Israel and addressing disagreements in a “constructive manner” will contribute to a peaceful resolution to the Mideast conflict.

He prayed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in east Jerusalem, a major holy site at the heart of recent unrest in the region. It is the third holiest site in Islam and is built on a hilltop that is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.

Cavusoglu said talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog had helped calm tensions in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended in early May.

“Working on a positive agenda can also help us to address our disagreements in a more constructive manner,” Cavusoglu told reporters.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, speaking at the same press conference, said the two countries “have always known how to return to dialogue and cooperation.”

“Nations with long histories always know how to close one chapter and open a new one. That is what we are doing here today,” he said.

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.

Cavusoglu also met with Palestinian officials in the occupied West Bank, where he reiterated Turkey’s support for their struggle for an independent state alongside Israel.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want all three territories to form their future state. There have been no serious peace talks for more than a decade.

“We believe that normalization of our ties will also have a positive impact on peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Cavusoglu said.

He also visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, on Wednesday.

Turkey and Israel were once close allies, but relations grew tense under Erdogan, who is a vocal critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Turkey has also embraced the Islamic militant group Hamas, which Israel and Western countries view as a terrorist group.

The countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power there in 2007.

Nine Turkish activists were killed. Israel apologized to Turkey for the deaths under a U.S.-brokered agreement, but reconciliation efforts stalled.

Turkey recalled its ambassador in 2018 after the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, prompting Israel to respond in kind. The two countries have not reappointed their ambassadors.

The latest attempt at a rapprochement has been led by Herzog, Israel’s mostly ceremonial president, who visited Turkey in March, becoming the first Israeli leader to do so in 14 years.

Herzog spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, the same annual gathering where Erdogan famously stormed off the stage after a sharp exchange with Israel’s then-President Shimon Peres about Gaza in 2009.

Taking questions after his speech, Herzog acknowledged that the process with Turkey was “not a lullaby of Romeo and Juliet,” but based on mutual interests. He also referenced the earlier exchange at Davos.

“We have our ups and downs with Turkey,” Herzog said. “I’m very pleased that I have an open, frank dialogue with President Erdogan which is leading in the right direction.”