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Turkey and Israel in effort to repair ties

Officials of Israel and Turkey said on Friday that their governments were working on an agreement to end the hemorrhaging of their relationship but were stuck on several issues, including whether Israel must apologize — or merely express regret — for the killings of nine Turks last May.

“We are trying to get a compromise formula,” Ron Dermer, a close aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, said on Israel Radio earlier in the week.

The deaths of the nine, one of whom was also an American citizen, occurred aboard a Turkish-sponsored flotilla seeking to break Israel’s embargo of Gaza. Israeli naval commandos boarded the largest of the ships, the Mavi Marmara, in international waters and facing violent resistance from dozens of activists, staged an armed takeover.

This came after fierce Turkish criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza two years ago as well as of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians generally. Once Israel’s closest Muslim ally, Turkey, whose government has moderate Islamist leanings, recalled its ambassador from Israel after the flotilla incident and has recently strengthened ties with Syria and Iran.

But a forest fire in Israel’s north a week ago led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek international help, and Turkey quickly sent two firefighting airplanes. Mr. Netanyahu made a point of thanking the Turks, visiting with their pilots and reminding them of the help Israel offered Turkey in its devastating 1999 earthquake, sending a team of 250 aid workers.

Turkish news media coverage of the firefighting efforts here and of Israel’s warm welcome showed Israel in a far more sympathetic light than usual. The Israelis believed this might be a moment to push for improved ties, and Mr. Netanyahu called Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for their first ever conversation. The Turks responded.

“There is a new atmosphere in terms of reconciliation with Israel,” the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told reporters this week.

An Israeli official, Yosef Ciechanover, met this week in Geneva with an official in the Turkish foreign ministry, Feridun Sinriliogu, and contacts have continued since.

Ozdem Sanberk, who was Turkey’s envoy to the United Nations inquiry into the flotilla incident, said by telephone that the Geneva talks had gone well. “The importance of the meeting in Geneva was that it showed the willingness of both Israel and Turkey to leave this chapter behind,” he said.

Prime Minister Erdogan has said publicly that Turkey would not return its ambassador to Israel until Turkey received compensation for the families of the dead and an apology. He has also spoken of the need to end Israel’s embargo of Gaza but has not consistently made that a condition of improved ties.

Israeli officials say they wish to restore relations with Turkey and are willing to pay compensation and express sorrow over what happened, but they have two concerns. They want it spelled out that their commandos who boarded the flotilla were acting in self-defense. And they want whatever deal emerges to end the United Nations inquiry and other international legal actions toward Israel stemming from the Mavi Marmara events.

Turkish officials have made clear they want an apology but have not agreed to ending the United Nations or other inquiries.

Israel’s position is that their soldiers acted appropriately and the embargo on Gaza — run by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas — is legitimate and legal. In addition, Israel worries that an apology implies guilt, which could lead to further legal action against the commandos and Israeli officials.

“We must not apologize as there are both moral-diplomatic ramifications and legal ramifications that can really expose Israeli soldiers to lawsuits, damage claims against Israel and the like,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Israel Radio on Friday.

Israeli official say part of what is motivating Turkey to come to an agreement is American pressure. Washington, unhappy to see two allies arguing and concerned about the direction of Turkish foreign policy, is urging Turkey to come to a deal.

But the result is far from clear. Israeli public opinion has turned strongly against Turkey, and Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition partners include several right-wing parties. An apology would be a hard sell.

“I’m not sure this is going to succeed,” a senior Israeli official said on Friday by telephone. “They haven’t abandoned their demands and we haven’t abandoned ours. The question is whether we can thread the needle.”

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