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Friday 22 August 2014

Obama's visit pays off as Israel apologises over Turkish deaths

Robert Tait, Jerusalem

Published 23/03/2013 | 05:00

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US President Barack Obama lays a wreath during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. REUTERS

BENJAMIN Netanyahu gave a dramatic apology for the deaths of nine Turkish activists in a commando raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, as US President Barack Obama's ground-breaking trip to Israel had an immediate impact.

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In an unexpected diplomatic breakthrough, the Israeli prime minister called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to "express apologies for any error that may have led to the loss of life" in the May 2010 incident, his office said.

Mr Erdogan accepted the apology, paving the way for a restoration of full diplomatic ties, which Turkey drastically curtailed after its initial demand for a full apology was rebuffed by Israel.

In a further climbdown, Mr Netanyahu also agreed to compensate the families of those killed when Israeli forces stormed the Mavi Marmara vessel as it tried to breach Israel's blockade of Gaza.

The development, three weeks after Mr Erdogan provoked outrage by describing Zionism as "a crime against humanity", came on the final day of Mr Obama's first visit to Israel as US president.

Mr Netanyahu phoned Mr Erdogan from a cabin on the tarmac of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport minutes before the US leader flew to neighbouring Jordan.

Earlier in the day, Mr Obama visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, declaring that the memorial illustrated the depravity to which man could sink but also served as a reminder of the "righteous among nations who refused to be bystanders".

Details of the call between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Erdogan were initially disclosed by US officials in Mr Obama's entourage, suggesting that it took place at the president's instigation.

Israeli officials said they had been keen to repair ties with Ankara for some time but acknowledged that Mr Obama's powers of persuasion had been vital in healing the breach between the two former allies.

"It's clear that we are a very close US ally in the region and so is Turkey," one government insider said.

"It's also clear that we've been keen to improve the relationship with Turkey and the US facilitated that."

The move represents a significant diplomatic achievement for Washington, which has become increasingly worried that the continuing rift was hampering Western policy towards Syria, which has borders with both Turkey and Israel.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Hizbollah-backed billionaire, announced the resignation of his two-year-old government following divisions on a new electoral law and the leadership of the security forces.

Responsibility

"Today I announce the resignation of the government," the telecommunications entrepreneur said in a televised speech yesterday.

"Maybe it's the only way for Lebanon's main political powers to take responsibility and unite to take Lebanon out of the unknown."

Tensions have been building over a parliamentary elections law between the Western-backed March 14 group and the Hizbollah-dominated March 8 faction. The vote was scheduled for June.

The two sides also disagreed about the reappointment of General Ashraf Rifi as director-general of interior security after reaching retirement age. He was opposed by Hizbollah, which is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and Israel. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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