President Isaac Herzog traveled to Turkey on Wednesday, becoming the first Israeli leader to visit in 14 years, as the two countries move to turn a new page in their troubled relationship.
Herzog is scheduled to hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara before traveling to Istanbul for meetings with Turkey’s Jewish community there.
"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.
Turkey and Israel were once close allies, but the relationship frayed under Erdogan, who is an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Israel, for its part, has been angered by Erdogan’s embrace of 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 the Palestinians that 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 U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem, once more recalled its ambassador from Israel, prompting Jerusalem to also recall its envoy. The two countries have not so far reappointed ambassadors.
The steps toward a rapprochement with Israel come as Turkey, beset by economic troubles, has been trying to end its international isolation by normalizing its frayed ties with several countries of the region, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
In the first step toward reconciliation, Erdogan called Herzog by phone after the Israeli head of state took office last year and the two have held several telephone conversations since then. Erdogan has also spoken to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett following the release of an Israeli couple who were arrested in Istanbul on suspicion of spying.
Last week, Herzog visited Cyprus where he issued reassurances that Israel’s warming relation with Turkey would not come at the expense of ties with Nicosia. During a visit to Greece last month, Herzog made similar remarks, insisting Israel would continue to expand its cooperation with Greece and Cyprus, which both have tense relations with Turkey.
Israel’s ties with Greece and Cyprus blossomed following the discovery of sizeable natural gas deposits in eastern Mediterranean waters as the countries look for ways to build on energy-based cooperation.
Turkey for its part has said there would be no change to Ankara’s position toward the Palestinians despite the normalization efforts with Israel.