Published March 22, 2013
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a phone call arranged with help from President Obama, apologized to Turkey Friday for the deaths of its citizens during a 2010 Gaza flotilla raid -- in a move to restore ruptured ties between the two nations.
Netanyahu acknowledged "operational mistakes" in the raid, according to one official, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepted the apology.
The phone call, which Obama also joined, was described as a "first step" toward normalizing relations between the two countries. Obama, who toured through Jordan Friday after his first visit to Israel as president, had discussed relations with Turkey during his time on the ground meeting with Israeli officials. This culminated with the call to Erdogan on Friday. Netanyahu also reportedly agreed to compensate the families of the victims.
Obama, speaking alongside Jordan's King Abdullah II at a press conference Friday, explained that he has long expressed to both countries that the rift in their relationship over the flotilla incident had "to be mended."
"During my visit, it appeared that the timing was good for that conversation to take place," Obama said. He added that, after discussing it with Netanyahu, they both agreed the "moment was right."
The flotilla incident severely harmed ties between the once-close allies. Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel, and diplomatic ties and military cooperation were greatly scaled back. The Gaza-bound boat was carrying activists trying to breach Israel's blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists were killed.
Netanyahu said the "tragic results" were not intentional and Israel "expressed remorse" for the loss of life.
The phone call Friday comes shortly after newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry visited with Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara on March 1.
Kerry's trip came just a few days after Erdogan had told a U.N. conference in Vienna that Zionism is "a crime against humanity" alongside anti-Semitism and fascism. When asked by a member of the State Department press corps that was traveling with Kerry if he would apologize, Davutoglo spoke heatedly, with Kerry standing alongside him, about how Israel needs to apologize for the flotilla incident and other offenses.
The deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations has principally occurred since the flotilla incident, but it was not the only cause. The Turks also see themselves being cut out of the extraordinary natural gas discoveries that Israel and Cyrpus have laid claim to in the Eastern Mediterranean, and have even gone so far as to stage some modest military maneuvers in those waters against the Israelis.
The phone call would appear to represent the achievement of a strategic regional goal for the U.S., which was displeased to see two of its allies at daggers with each other.
After the phone call, Obama arrived in Jordan on Friday for the final stop on his visit to the Middle East and a day of meetings with King Abdullah II that are expected to focus on the influx of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
More than 400,000 Syrians have crossed the border into Jordan to escape the violence, crowding refugee camps and overwhelming aid agencies run by this important U.S. ally in the Middle East. Abdullah has voiced fears that extremists and terrorists could create a regional base in his country.
Obama will also seek to bolster Jordan's efforts to reform its government as it seeks to stave off an Arab Spring-style revolution.
Before arriving in the Jordanian capital of Amman, Obama closed a three-day visit to Israel, another important U.S. ally in the region, by paying respects to the nation's heroes and to victims of the Holocaust. He also solemnly reaffirmed the Jewish state's right to exist.
Accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, Obama laid wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism who died in 1904 before realizing his dream of a Jewish homeland, and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.
He also toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, declaring after that the memorial illustrates the depravity to which man can sink but also serves as a reminder of the "righteous among the nations who refused to be bystanders."
Friday's stop at Herzl's grave, together with Thursday's visit to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Hebrew texts, were symbolic stops for Obama that acknowledged that the rationale for Israel's existence rests with its historical ties to the region and with a vision that predated the Holocaust.
Obama was criticized in Israel for his 2009 Cairo speech in which he gave only the example of the Holocaust as reason for justifying Israel's existence.
Fox News' James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.