Israel’s president flies to Turkey to thaw frosty ties as gas interest grows

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President Isaac Herzog embarked on Wednesday on the first visit by an Israeli leader to Turkey since 2008 as the regional rivals seek to overcome years of animosity.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan invited Herzog, whose post is largely ceremonial, in January, and has said they will review in their talks in Ankara all aspects of Turkey-Israel ties.

“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 told reporters at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.

“But we shall try to restart our relations and build them in a measured and cautious manner, and with mutual respect between our states,” he said.

One particular area of interest for Turkey and Israel is natural gas. 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.

Gas supplies from the Mediterranean could ease European dependence on Russian gas, a hot topic following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent calls from European leaders to reduce the continent’s reliance 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.

Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel hit a low in 2018 when they expelled ambassadors in a dispute over the killing by Israeli forces of 60 Palestinians during violent protests on the Gaza border.

The incident halted years of gradual reconciliation following a row over a 2010 Israeli raid on an aid ship sailing towards Gaza that killed nine Turkish activists. A tenth activist wounded in the incident died in 2014 after years in a coma.

The two countries have traded accusations over Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and Ankara’s support for the militant Islamist group Hamas that governs Gaza.

But while relations with Israel have remained prickly, Ankara has recently worked to improve ties with several countries in the region as part of a charm offensive launched in 2020.

Through the years of animosity, Turkey and Israel have maintained trade, which stood at $6.7 billion in 2021, up from $5 billion in 2019 and 2020, according to official data.

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