Obama brokers resolution with Israel, Turkey

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JERUSALEM -- Under persistent prodding from President Barack Obama, Israel and Turkey resolved a bitter three-year dispute Friday with a diplomatic thaw that will help a fragile region confront Syria's civil war, while handing the president a solid accomplishment as he closed out his visit to the Middle East.

The breakthrough occurred in the most improbable of surroundings: a trailer parked on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion International Airport. Moments before Mr. Obama left for Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and apologized for deadly errors in Israel's 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was trying to bring aid to Palestinians in Gaza.

After years of angrily demanding an apology, Mr. Erdogan accepted Mr. Netanyahu's gesture, and both sides agreed to dispatch envoys to each other's nations, having recalled them in 2011.

The president's involvement, a senior U.S. official said, was crucial to both leaders, which is why Mr. Netanyahu scheduled the call before Mr. Obama's departure from Israel. Mr. Erdogan insisted on speaking first to Mr. Obama before the president handed over the phone to Mr. Netanyahu. In the end, the call produced a win-win for all sides.

Mr. Obama achieved reconciliation between two of the United States' most important allies, while Turkey and Israel won good will with the White House, important for two nations that have made ties to the United States central to their foreign policy. Turkey and Israel, along with Jordan, have also been three pillars of stability for the United States as it confronts a civil war in Syria that threatens to destabilize the broader region.

"Both of us agreed the moment was ripe," Mr. Obama said of Mr. Netanyahu at a news conference later in Amman, Jordan. He cautioned that the detente was a "work in progress.". U.S. officials say both countries are still "working the issue" of dropping criminal charges for four current and former top Israeli military officials that Turkey indicted for their roles in the flotilla raid, and of determining Israel's compensation to Turkey.

Mr. Obama reiterated his support for Jordan, too, announcing after a meeting with King Abdullah that the United States would provide an additional $200 million in aid to help Jordan with the burden of caring for 460,000 Syrian refugees.

Israel and Turkey have a host of shared economic and security interests, and both are concerned about the unraveling situation in Syria. Turkey also could play a strategic role in Washington and Jerusalem's efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, as well as in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It was the Palestinian issue that opened the rift between the two, when Israeli commandos raided the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, as it was trying to break Israel's blockade of Gaza to deliver supplies. Nine people were killed in clashes on board.

"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," a statement issued by Mr. Netanyahu's office said.

Mr. Erdogan's office, in turn, said he had accepted the apology "on behalf of the Turkish people," and that in his conversation with Mr. Netanyahu, he had emphasized their nations' shared history and prior eras of friendship and cooperation.

The call's timing came as a surprise after a visit by Mr. Obama that was intensely symbolic and, publicly at least, tightly focused on Iran, Syria and the peace process. Mr. Obama used his trip to convince the Israeli public that he was a strong supporter and ally -- credibility he then hoped to use to persuade the Israelis that it was safe, and wise, to earnestly embrace negotiations with Palestinians.

Public reaction suggested that Mr. Obama did win the public trust, but it was not at all clear that he would achieve the second goal and prompt any significant movement in the long-stalled peace process.

Though important, the Turkey-Israel feud was less complex than those other problems. Defusing it may be the only immediate, concrete achievement Mr. Obama can claim from his visit here, beyond a broad sense that he has improved his standing with the Israeli public.

Still, the Obama administration has been working intensively for months, even years, to repair the breach, according to Israeli, U.S. and Turkish officials.

The new secretary of state, John F. Kerry, made it a focus of his visit to Ankara, the Turkish capital, this month, officials said. U.S. diplomats prodded Mr. Erdogan to step back from his recent comments comparing Zionism to fascism, which in turn made it easier for them to get Mr. Netanyahu to make a move. The worsening situation in Syria, officials said, was also a catalyst.

Mr. Obama also made three symbolic pilgrimages Friday: meeting with Christian leaders at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; laying wreaths and stones at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the slain prime minister and peacemaker; and visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum.

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