JERUSALEM – President Barack 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 Kerry remains in the region. Israeli officials said serious talks were under way 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, stressing 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 across Syria’s borders. 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.