Israel apologized to Turkey on Friday for killing nine Turkish citizens in a 2010 naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla and the two feuding US allies agreed to normalize relations, in a surprise breakthrough announced by US President Barack Obama.
The rapprochement could help regional coordination to contain spillover from the Syrian civil war and ease Israel’s diplomatic isolation in the Middle East as it faces challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear program.
In a statement released by the White House only minutes before Obama ended a visit to Israel, the US president said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had spoken by telephone.
“The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security,” Obama said.
The first conversation between the two leaders since 2011, when Netanyahu phoned to offer help after an earthquake struck Turkey, gave Obama a diplomatic triumph in a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in which he offered no new plan to revive peace talks frozen for nearly three years.
The 30-minute call was made in a runway trailer at Tel Aviv Airport, where Obama and Netanyahu huddled before the president boarded Air Force One for a flight to Jordan, US officials said.
Israel bowed to a long-standing demand by Ankara, once a close strategic partner, to apologize formally for the deaths aboard the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara, which was boarded by Israeli marines who intercepted a flotilla challenging Israel’s naval blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip.
“In light of Israel’s investigation into the incident which pointed to a number of operational mistakes, the prime minister expressed Israel’s apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement in English.
Meanwhile, Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah presented a united front against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday as Jordan grapples with a refugee crisis caused by Syria’s civil war.
Obama, in Jordan following a visit to Israel and the West Bank, pledged new aid to help the country deal with the refugee crush, but stopped short of promising military assistance to Syrian rebels to speed the departure of al-Assad after a two-year civil war that has claimed at least 70,000 lives.
Syria dominated talks between Obama and King Abdullah. Jordanian authorities worry that any emergence of Islamist rule in a post-al-Assad Syria could embolden Islamists, who are the main opposition group in Jordan.
Obama pledged to work with the US Congress to provide US$200 million in extra assistance to care for Syrian refugees who now number 460,000 in Jordan.
Obama demonstrated a wariness about Syrian rebels even as he warned that Syria could become an enclave of extremism if a political transition does not take place.
“Ultimately what the people of Syria are looking for is not replacing oppression with a new form of oppression,” he said.
“I’m confident that al-Assad will go,” Obama said. “It’s not a question of if, but when.”