JERUSALEM — President Obama brokered a diplomatic reconciliation between key Middle East allies Israel and Turkey at the end of his visit to the Holy Land, thawing tensions that have complicated U.S. efforts to cope with regional issues including Syria’s civil war.
With Obama looking on, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally apologized Friday to Turkey over the 2010 killing by Israeli soldiers of nine Turkish activists aboard a Gaza Strip-bound protest ship, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
The apology, made during a 30-minute telephone call to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, clears the way for the restoration of normal relations between the two countries.
The U.S.-brokered apology added some last-minute diplomatic heft to the first foreign trip of Obama’s second term. Though his speech Thursday to Israeli university students was generally well-received, it avoided the difficult details involved in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry remains in the region. Israeli officials said serious talks were underway about reviving peace talks, but no agreement was imminent.
U.S. officials had been trying to negotiate a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey for two years, emphasizing that they should be working together to address regional threats, particularly the 2-year-old conflict in Syria.
Unconfirmed reports that chemical weapons were used in Syria this week heightened the sense of urgency to mend ties with Turkey, Israeli officials said.
An end to the Israel-Turkey spat will make it easier for the U.S. to coordinate a regional response to the conflict, which has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming out of Syria. In addition to fears of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons stockpiles, the U.S. and many of Syria’s neighbors worry about the country becoming a failed state that could provide a safe haven to Islamic militant groups.
Speaking of the two U.S. allies as he left Israel, Obama said: “We attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security.”
Israel had resisted U.S. pressure to apologize, saying passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara flotilla were responsible for their own deaths because they violently resisted Israeli commandos as the soldiers seized the ship in international waters. The boat was carrying international activists attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade around Gaza.
Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador in retaliation and cut military ties. Erdogan had vowed not to normalize relations until Israel apologized and compensated the families of those killed.
During the telephone conversation, which took place in a trailer at the airport, Netanyahu acknowledged “operational mistakes” and Erdogan accepted the apology, a U.S. official said.
Israeli officials said they promised to pay compensation to the families of the activists. In return, Turkey will drop its lawsuits against the soldiers. The two countries agreed to normalize relations, including reinstating ambassadors.
But there are other reasons why the relationship may remain tense. Erdogan last month compared Zionism to anti-Semitism and fascism, calling it a crime against humanity. He said this week that his comments had been misinterpreted.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who blocked a previous U.S.-brokered reconciliation with Turkey, criticized Netanyahu on Friday, saying the apology would make Israel appear weak in the region. Others in Israel have argued that Turkey, which had been distancing itself from Israel over the West Bank occupation and Gaza border blockade, will just find another reason to break ties.
Robert Danin, a former diplomat and an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Netanyahu’s apology was a gesture of goodwill toward Obama as well as Turkey. “I think the Israelis wanted to have the president leave with a tangible diplomatic achievement, and that was it,” he said.
While both Obama and Netanyahu made a point of getting along in public, experts said they doubted there would be immediate progress in improving U.S.-Israeli relations.
On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Obama administration officials said they had come primarily to listen. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said, “We’re at the pre-breakthrough stage.”
“We set expectations low precisely because there has been a lot of talk over the decades but it hasn’t produced the result everyone wants to see,” Obama said Friday night. “What I can guarantee is that we’ll make the effort.... We’re just going to keep on plugging away.”
Before leaving for Jordan for a meeting with King Abdullah II, Obama spent the morning making cultural stops at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and, in Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and Mt. Herzl military cemetery, where he paid tribute at the graves of Zionist founder Theodor Herzl and assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
As Obama departed, many Israelis said they felt more confident of the president’s support and friendship — a key purpose of the visit.
But some also said his call for peace with Palestinians was naive. “The whole ‘If you will peace, you will have peace’ notion is good for Zen books, but not for the Middle East,” said Shahar Kvatinsky, 32, an electrical engineering student.
Obama’s expressions of empathy toward Israelis left many Palestinians even more pessimistic than before. Palestinians have long viewed U.S. policy as tilted toward Israel, but some had held out hope that Obama would be different. U.S. flags were burned and posters of Obama were destroyed in West Bank protests during his visit.
“People thought he would change things, but nothing changed,” said Bethlehem activist Mazen Qumsieh.
Others, however, said the visit may be a sign that Obama is planning to refocus on their plight and, at a minimum, release financial assistance that was withheld last year from the Palestinian Authority.
Ghassan Khatib, a political analyst and former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said the U.S. had been idle on the issue for the last two years. “The Americans abandoned the conflict during this period, which gave Netanyahu a free hand to do whatever he wants,” Khatib said. “So, I look at this visit as a step in the right direction.”
Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in Washington, special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, and news researcher Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.