An Historic Moment: Remembering when a Turkish President made the First State Visit to Israel
On March 12th 1998, President Suleyman Demirel became the first Turkish president to pay an official visit to the state of Israel, leading a delegation of 180 top diplomats, academicians, businessmen and journalists. The President met with Prime Minister Shimon Perez, received an honorary degree from Hebrew University and addressed the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.
While in Israel Demirel reminded his audience of the historic ties between Turkey and the Jewish people, saying, "Throughout history, the Turkish people have always embraced Jewish people fleeing persecution. These descendants of former refugees are today a colorful part of the strongly-cemented mosaic of Turkish society. Their accomplishments are well recognized. We are proud of them." On the second day of his visit, Demirel visited the town of Bat-Yam where he received a warm welcome from 30,000 Jewish immigrants from Turkey.
In his remarks to the crowd at the opening of the Ataturk Memorial Park, Demirel noted that peace was the most important issue in the world. He went on to say that his visit was "not just an ordinary protocol visit. I came here to stress the importance Turkey attaches to peace, and at the terrorism conference in Egypt I will demand heavy sanctions, including economic embargo, against countries supporting terrorism." Also during the visit, Foreign Minister Gonensay and his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak signed a free trade agreement that will eliminate all tariff barriers between the two countries by the year 2000.
Turkish officials see this move as a "new morning" in economic cooperation between Israel and Turkey. The first priority will be lifting customs duties on industrial goods, then on agricultural goods and, at the final stage, on textile products. Current trade volumes are relatively small with merchandise trade amounting to $363 million last year. Israeli officials said they hoped trade levels would rise to between $1 and $2 billion by 2000. In addition to this economic agreement, Turkey and Israel also signed the Agreement for Mutual Encouragement and Protection of Investments, the Agreement for Avoidance of Double Taxation and the Agreement for Economic, Science and Technical Cooperation.