WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to normalize relations after Netanyahu apologized and agreed to compensation for the 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged ship that left nine Turks dead.
The two men talked on Friday by phone, according to statements by Netanyahu’s office and the White House.
"The two men agreed to restore normalization between Israel and Turkey, including the dispatch of ambassadors and the cancellation of legal steps against IDF soldiers," said the Israeli statement.
The White House was first to report the conversation, with a statement by President Obama on the subject just after the completion of his three-day tour of Israel.
"I welcome the call today between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Erdogan," Obama said in the statement. "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. I am hopeful that today’s exchange between the two leaders will enable them to engage in deeper cooperation on this and a range of other challenges and opportunities."
Netanyahu apologized for "operational errors" during the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla.
"The Prime Minister made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life," said the statement from Netanyahu’s office. "In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation."
Among the dead was a dual Turkish-American citizen. A senior Obama administration official described the call as a first step toward Israeli-Turkish reconciliation.
Israel Radio reported that Obama initiated the phone call in Netanyahu’s presence, spoke with Erdogan, and then handed the receiver to Netanyahu.
Reuters, reporting from Ankara, said Erdogan expressed the "strong importance" of Jewish-Turkish ties.
“To Turkish Jews, this comes as an overdue relief,” Adil Anjel, president of the foreign affairs committee of the Jewish Community of Turkey, told JTA. “It’s a bad feeling for any Jew if their country has bad relations with Israel.”
Anjel said that beyond Obama, “also ongoing violence in Syria served as a catalyst to bring together Israel and Turkey — two countries that don’t have the luxury of not cooperating.”
Israeli tourism to Turkey, which has plummeted since 2009, “will gradually return as the two countries go about rebuilding relations," Anjel said. "It will take time, but I am sure this will happen and within a year or two we will again have hundreds of thousands of Israelis here.”
The Obama administration has been endeavoring to repair ties between the one-time allies since May 2010, when Israeli commandos boarded the ship, which was attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Passengers on the boat attacked the commandos during the raid, and nine people were killed in the ensuing melee. The raid sent already damaged Turkish-Israeli ties into a tailspin.
Netanyahu until now had resisted calls, including from some of his closest advisers, to apologize for the incident. Other factions in his last government strongly opposed an apology. Recent reports, however, had said that Netanyahu would reconsider once he had a new government in place — something he accomplished last weekend.
This week, Erdogan attempted to backtrack from his most recent anti-Israel outburst, telling a Danish newspaper that his equation last month of Zionism with anti-Semitism and crimes against humanity referred only to certain Israeli acts and not the Zionist movement per se. Netanyahu, in his statement, said he "expressed appreciation" to Erdogan for the clarification.
Relations between Israel and Turkey had turned sour after the 2009 Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip. In the statement Friday, Netanyahu said he told Erdogan "that Israel has already lifted several restrictions on the movement of civilians and goods to all of the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and added that this will continue as long as the quiet is maintained."
The statement concluded by saying that "The two leaders agreed to continue to work on improving the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories."