Middle East

Israel, Turkey find way forward on flotilla money

The Turkish-owned cruise liner Mavi Marmara is seen under maintenance at a shipyard in Istanbul April 21, 2013. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

ANKARA, Turkey: In a step toward restoring ties, former allies Turkey and Israel agreed Monday on the "methods and principles" of working out compensation payments for the victims of a deadly 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, Turkey's deputy prime minister said.

Eight Turks and one Turkish-American were killed and several other pro-Palestinian activists were wounded when Israeli commandos stormed the ship Mavi Marmara while stopping an international flotilla trying to breach a blockade of the Gaza Strip. The incident, which also wounded seven Israeli soldiers, increased tensions between the once close allies and led to a break in relations.

Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama brokered a rapprochement between the two countries, both of which Washington regards as strategic partners in the turbulent Middle East. Israel offered an apology and compensation for the May 31, 2010, raid, and the Turkish and Israeli leaders agreed to try to normalize their relationship.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since warned, however, that the restoration of full-fledged diplomatic ties would come only after compensation is paid to the surviving victims of the flotilla raids and the relatives of the dead, and would be dependent on Israel ending all commercial restrictions on the Palestinians.

A group led by the Israeli prime minister's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror and by Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu met in the Turkish capital, Ankara, for talks that could lead to an exchange of ambassadors between the two countries and other diplomatic moves.

Speaking to reporters at the end of a Turkish Cabinet meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the two sides had agreed on "the methods and principles, the basics and parameters" for working out the compensation, but said the amount to be paid had not yet been determined. He said the delegations could hold a second or third meeting.

"The meeting was positive in general," Arinc said. "When the amount of compensation is determined, when an agreement is reached and is approved by authorities in both countries, we will have reached an important phase for the relations to be fully restored."

In a move that could complicate the diplomatic efforts, victims' relatives have objected to talks between Turkey and Israel until all restrictions imposed on Gaza are lifted. Although Israel lifted most restrictions on the import of goods into Gaza following the flotilla incident, restrictions on some construction materials and most exports remain in effect.

The families also vowed not to drop lawsuits filed against former Israeli military commanders that Turkey holds responsible for the deaths - despite a Turkish pledge to withdraw legal action against the Israeli soldiers. Turkish prosecutors have demanded life in prison for the officers, although it is unlikely that any sentence could be carried out.

Arinc called on the families to refrain from "polemics."

"You must trust your government," he said. "What the government is trying to achieve is the right thing."

The Hamas militant group controls the Gaza Strip, while the Western-backed Palestinian Authority governs autonomous areas in the West Bank. The territories have been divided since Hamas seized Gaza in 2007.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, met late Monday with Erdogan, who plans to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip at the end of May.

The Turkish premier's planned visit, which is seen as a move that could strengthen Hamas, has raised concerns in Washington and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly urged Erdogan during a visit to Istanbul on Sunday to delay the trip, saying it was not the right "point in time."

Arinc said Monday that no firm date had been set for Erdogan's visit but criticized Kerry's statement as "diplomatically objectionable, wrong and incorrect."

"It is the government which decides when and where the prime minister or a Turkish official can travel. We are in no position to seek permission or acceptance from anyone," Arinc said.

"An experienced foreign minister would not have done this," Arinc added. "A foreign minister cannot and should not directly express to the media his personal opinions about our prime minister's visit."

Both Israel and Abbas also oppose the Turkish leader's planned visit to Gaza. Abbas, the internationally recognized leader of the Palestinians, is locked in a rivalry with Hamas, while Israel opposes any international recognition or support for the militant group.





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