Much of the focus of President Obama’s Middle East trip has been directed at whether he would be able to reignite peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. So no one expected that a major accomplishment of the trip would be his negotiation of a reconciliation between Israel and Turkey — two former allies who had ceased relations after Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists in 2010.
During that time, the activists were aboard a protest ship bound for the Gaza Strip, where they were trying to break Israel’s naval blockade around Gaza. Israel had insisted the activists had precipitated their own deaths because they violently resisted Israeli commandos as the soldiers seized the ship in international waters.
After the deaths, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and cut military ties. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed not to normalize relations until Israel apologized and compensated the families of those killed.
At around 4 p.m. yesterday, Obama called up Erdogan from a trailer at the airport in Jerusalem. After small talk, Obama passed the phone to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
During a 30-minute conversation, Netanyahu acknowledged “operational mistakes” and Erdogan accepted the apology. Israeli officials also said they promised to pay compensation to the families of the activists. Turkey said it would drop its lawsuits against the soldiers. The two countries agreed to normalize relations, including reinstating ambassadors.
The two prime ministers agreed to issue the same statement from their capital cities, detailing an Israeli apology and compensation for the families of the Turks who were killed. Turkey backed off from insisting on an end to the Israeli blockade on Gaza. The agreement also said Israel would allow Turkish assistance in dealings with the Palestinians.
After their conversation, Obama took the phone back. He reportedly told Erdogan that he was glad to see this happening and said, “See you soon” — a sign that Erdogan would get a White House invitation shortly.
The U.S. had been working to get its two key regional allies to come together again for the past two years, saying they needed them to work jointly to address regional threats, particularly the 2-year-old conflict in Syria.
With unconfirmed reports that chemical weapons were used in Syria this week, the need for the reunification intensified.
“We attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security,” Obama said as he left Israel.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) congratulated Netanyahu for the apology.
“The long friendship and mutual cooperation between Israel and Turkey has been beneficial for both countries, and an important model for partnership between Muslim nations in the region and Israel,” ADL National Director Abe Foxman said, thanking Obama for his role in the reconciliation.