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Turkey and Israel are in talks to restore diplomatic ties

Turkey and Israel are in talks to restore diplomatic ties
File photos of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, andIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. The two countries are negotiating a return to normalized relations. (File photos)

Five years after they angrily broke off diplomatic ties, Israel and Turkey are negotiating a return to normalized relations as the region around them explodes in violence.

The Obama administration is eager for the rapprochement, which it sees as a buffer against each nation's growing isolation. Both are critical regional allies for Washington, which relies on Turkey as a key part of the coalition fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

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Diplomats are holding talks at a secret location, reportedly in Switzerland, where a preliminary deal is said to be in the works.

"Efforts have been ongoing for a draft," Omer Celik, a spokesman for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, told a news conference this week in the Turkish capital, Ankara. "There is no concrete agreement or anything that has been signed."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted in the Israeli press along similar lines.

"We have been in ongoing contact with Turkey for several months," he said. "We still don't have understandings."

U.S. diplomats said they were monitoring reports of the push to repair relations.

"We would welcome this step in improving relations between two of our key allies in the region," a State Department official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy.

Relations between Israel, a Jewish state, and Turkey, a predominantly Muslim but nominally secular country, have always been prickly.

But Turkey was the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel, and for decades the two shared robust military and economic ties based on tourism and the defense industry.

The plight of the Palestinians was always a point of contention, but one that was sidelined by mutual interests. In 2010, however, Israeli commandos intercepted a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, that was attempting to deliver supplies to the Gaza Strip. The raid left 10 Turkish activists dead.

The incident drew international condemnation and caused a rupture in relations. Ankara withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv and expelled Israel's envoy.

Anti-Israel rhetoric mounted in Turkey in the years since, and reconciliation seemed less and less likely.

But fast-moving and multiple conflicts in the Middle East have given new impetus to an easing of tensions, especially for Turkey.

Israel has long said it wanted to restore ties. The Israeli government has apologized for the Mavi Marmara raid and agreed to pay $20 million in reparations.

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Differences remain over Gaza, which is controlled by the militant Palestinian organization Hamas and is in effect cut off by an Israeli naval blockade. Turkey wants the blockade lifted; Israel has refused so far.

But Turkey's motivation for a diplomatic resolution, which the Turkish press has called a "U-turn" in policy, is more complicated.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to smooth relations with Israel as a way to reduce dependence on Russia, analysts say.

Moscow and Ankara have appeared on the brink of open hostilities since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet along Turkey's border with Syria last month.

Turkey looks to Israel and the fuel-rich Mediterranean basin as a possible supplier of natural gas, most of which it currently receives from Russia.

The ruling party in Turkey is taking steps it would not choose under normal circumstances because of its Islamist orientation, commentator Semih Idiz wrote Tuesday in the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News.

"The most obvious case in point is its efforts at trying to improve ties with Israel," he wrote.

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