ISRAELI prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apologised for the killing of nine Turkish activists by naval commandos three years ago, paving the way for a warming of relations between the estranged former allies.
The apology came during a phone call by the Israeli premier to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that was made at the behest of US president Barack Obama, who concluded a three-day visit to Israel yesterday and had pressed the two sides to reconcile.
The 30-minute call was made in a runway trailer at Tel Aviv airport, where Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu huddled before the president boarded Air Force One for a flight to Jordan, US officials said.
An announcement by Mr Netanyahu’s office yesterday said the two men had agreed to restore full diplomatic relations, downgraded by Turkey after the May 2010 raid by Israeli forces on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, part of an international flotilla that intended to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish American were killed in the raid, which focused attention on Israel’s economic chokehold over the Strip.
Mr Netanyahu “made clear that the tragic results on the Marmara were not intentional and Israel expresses sorrow over the harm and loss of life,” his office said.
Turkish officials said Mr Erdogan accepted the apology in the name of the Turkish people. Israel has also now agreed to pay compensation for causing the fatalities.
When troops boarded the vessel they were assaulted by passengers wielding clubs and some Israeli leaders, including then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, were reluctant to apologise.
However, Mr Lieberman is now outside of the cabinet pending a corruption trial and the voices arguing that Israel needs to mend fences with Turkey to ease its regional isolation have gained the upper hand. Mr Lieberman, who serves as chair of the Knesset foreign affairs committee, last night called the apology “a grave mistake”.
“Whoever saw the pictures that were taken on the Marmara understands without any doubt that the soldiers acted in self-defence,” he said.
Following the deaths, Turkish officials began referring to Israel as a “terrorist state”. Last month, Mr Erdogan termed Zionism, the Jewish nationalist ideology upon which Israel was founded, a “crime against humanity”.
Turkey had made the lifting of Israeli strictures on movement of people and goods to Gaza a condition for rapprochement, terming the measures, which Israel says are necessary for security, a “siege” against the civilian population.
According to an unnamed Israeli official quoted by the Ynet news agency, the two sides have agreed not to let the matter cloud their relations.
Both Mr Erdogan’s office and Mr Netanyahu’s representatives said Mr Netanyahu had told the prime minister that Israel had “substantially lifted” restrictions on entry of goods to Palestinian territories including Gaza and that “would continue as long as calm prevailed”.