Israelis: Turkish demand for flotilla raid apology unacceptable condition for leaders' meeting

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A planned meeting between Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Turkish counterpart was scrapped because of the Israeli leader's refusal to apologize for the deadly commando raid on a Turkish-led flotilla that tried to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials said Monday.

In the latest bid to repair Israel's relations with its only Muslim ally in the region, Peres told reporters he had agreed to join Turkish President Abdullah Gul at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, then accepted Gul's invitation to meet on the sidelines. But Israeli officials said Gul then set unacceptable conditions for the meeting.

Gul on Monday denied that any such meeting had ever been planned. "That is not true," the Turkish president told The Associated Press. "There was never a meeting scheduled between us."

A report by Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency quoted Gul as telling reporters in New York on Sunday that he would not meet with Peres because of a scheduling problem. Some reports had suggested that the two men would meet in a sign of a thaw in strained relations between the two formerly close allies.

Relations between the two countries have been deteriorating and hit a low point after the May raid in which nine people, including eight Turks and a Turkish-American, were killed when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ferry that was part of the aid flotilla heading to Gaza. Turkey has demanded that an Israeli apology for the raid and compensation for the victims' families.

Peres told reporters that he found Turkey's conditions for a meeting with Gul to be unacceptable.

"I got some conditions which made this meeting in my judgment not a positive one," Peres told reporters as the U.N. General Assembly's Millennium Development Goals summit was getting under way.

"Now we didn't change our attitude to Turkey. We were friends, we remain friends. Maybe Turkey changed her mind, and that's for the Turks to decide," Peres said. "We don't intend to worsen the situation. Neither can we submit to preconditions which are totally unacceptable."

Peres did not elaborate on the preconditions. But senior Israeli officials confirmed that Gul wanted Israel to publicly apologize for the flotilla raid.

"The Turks came with the demands that could not be met ...," said Israel's U.N. Ambassador Meron Reuben. The demands included "that we apologize for the flotilla incident," he said.

Investigators from a U.N. human rights inquiry on the May 31 flotilla attack have been interviewing witnesses, including an Israeli Knesset member. Israel refused to cooperate with that probe and accused the U.N. Human Rights Council of bias.

But it is cooperating with a separate U.N. panel ordered by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. That panel, led by New Zealand's ex-Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and Colombia's ex-President Alvaro Uribe, is looking into legal issues surrounding the incident.

Israeli commandos said they opened fire in self-defense after meeting what they called unexpected resistance when they boarded the ferry carrying aid supplies to Gaza.

An international outcry resulted, forcing Israel to ease its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade in June 2007 after Hamas militants took control of the area.

Israel's military completed its own investigation, which found that its intelligence failed to predict the violent response but its troops reacted properly.

Later Monday, Peres met privately with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In a brief appearance before reporters, neither leader would discuss particulars about the recently renewed Mideast peace talks. The key issue of whether Israel will extend a partial ban on settlement building in the West Bank, territory the Palestinians want for a future state, was not addressed by either man publicly.

On Tuesday, Peres will appear at a roundtable discussion presented by the Clinton Global Initiative with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Bahrain's crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Bahrain and Israel have no formal relations. Former President Bill Clinton will moderate.