Barack Obama listens in as Benjamin Netanyahu says sorry to Turkey for Israeli role in Gaza flotilla raid

State apologises for the ‘tragic results’ of commando raid on blockade-breaking ship that left nine dead
  • @AlistairDawber

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday apologised for the deaths of nine Turkish activists who were killed by Israeli commandos aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010.

During a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Netanyahu said that the “tragic results” were not intentional and that Israel “expressed remorse” for the loss of life. He cited “operational mistakes”. It was the first time the two have spoken since the incident. Israel also agreed to restore full diplomatic relations with Turkey.

In a statement issued by Mr Erdogan’s office, the Turkish premier, expressed the importance of strong friendship and co-operation between Jewish and Turkish people.

The ship was part of flotilla attempting to break through a blockade imposed by Israel on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and the activists’ death has since strained relations between the two countries. The situation was made worse recently, when Mr Erdogan described Zionism as a “crime against humanity”.

Barack Obama listened in to the phone call as he as prepared to conclude his three-day visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The relationship between Israel and Turkey is considered one of the most important in the region. “The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security,” Mr Obama said in a statement. Many hope that Mr Obama’s visit to the Holy Land will mark a fresh start in Israeli and Palestinian relations.

But it was the weather that took centre stage on the final day of the visit. A sandstorm meant that his helicopter was unable to make the short fight between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank, meaning that Mr Obama was nearly an hour late for a planned trip to the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus.

Instead, the President drove to Bethlehem, a trip that took him through the Israelis’ controversial separation barrier. And in Bethlehem itself there were a few scuffles in Manger Square ahead of the President’s visit. At the mosque in Manger Square, the Iman described the US as the, “source of all evil in world. We will not give up one bit of our land”.

As on Thursday when he visited Palestinian Auth-ority President, Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah, Mr Obama’s trip to the West Bank yesterday was brief. During that visit, Mr Obama urged Mr Abbas to return to peace talks with Israel unconditionally, but there was no sign the Western-backed Palestinian leader would do so. Mr Abbas has said Israel must first stop its settlement activity in the West Bank.

Mr Obama returned to Jerusalem for a two-hour meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David hotel, where the Israeli Prime Minister called for a greater emphasis on security arrangements in any subsequent talks with the Palestinians. Mr Obama said before arriving in the region that he was not going to announce any new peace initiative, but in a sign that Washington believes at least some progress has been made, the new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, will continue meetings with Mr Netanyahu later today and will return to the region next month, and in May.

The day started with a visit to Mount Herzl, home to Israel’s national cemetery. Mr Obama laid a wreath at the tomb of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister assassinated in 1995, and that of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, told the Haaretz newspaper that, “everything in this trip is rife with significance and symbolism not necessarily understandable to people around the world but poignantly meaningful to people in the Middle East. By laying a wreath at Herzl’s grave just now – an act that other foreign leaders have refused to do – President Obama was reaffirming Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state.”

Later, in a speech at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to those murdered in the Holocaust, Mr Obama, said: “Here we see how evil can, for a moment in time, triumph... Here we learn that we are never powerless. The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of the state of Israel, there will never be a Holocaust again.”

From Ben-Gurion airport, Mr Obama flew to Jordan, where he was due last night to meet King Abdullah.