U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Turkish leaders Sunday to speedily restore full diplomatic relations with Israel, two American allies the U.S. sees as anchors of stability in a Middle East wracked by Syria's civil war, Arab Spring political upheavals and the potential threat posed by Iran's nuclear program.
"We would like to see this relationship that is important to stability in the Middle East and critical to the peace process ... get back on track in its full measure," Kerry told reporters at a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after arriving in Istanbul, his first stop on a 10-day trip to the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
Kerry said that while it was not up to Washington to set a deadline for Turkey and Israel to normalize ties, he urged the two sides to iron out the sticking points that could prevent a full restoration of ties.
"It is not for the United States to be setting conditions or terms with respect to what the prime minister's [Tayyip Erdogan's] schedule ought to be or what the requirements of Turkey are with respect to that process," Kerry said after arriving in Istanbul, his first stop on a 10-day trip to the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
"It is imperative that the compensation component ... of the arrangement be fulfilled, that the ambassadors be returned and that full relationship be embraced but it's not up to us to discuss the timing," Kerry told a news conference, referring to the efforts to restore ties two years after the Israel Defense Forces' deadly raid on a Turkish-flagged Gaza bound flotilla.
Davutoglu suggested that full normalization of ties would probably take some time, however, with Turkey that Israel end all "embargoes" against the Palestinians first.
"There is an offense that has been committed and there needs to be accountability," Davutoglu said. He signaled that Turkey would pursue a "careful" advance toward a complete restoration of relations, with compensation and an end to Israeli trade restrictions on the Gaza Strip as the stumbling blocks.
"All of the embargoes should be eliminated once and for all," he said, speaking through an interpreter.
Kerry met with both Erdogan and Davutoglu during his trip to the Istanbul with the aim of firming up the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel that President Barack Obama kick-started during a visit to the Jewish state last month.
Turkey and Israel once close partners, but the relationship plummeted after the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, in which eight Turks and a Turkish-American died.
Before leaving Israel two weeks ago, Obama arranged a telephone conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdogan. Netanyahu apologized for the incident, and compensation talks are expected to begin this week.
Fixing the Turkish-Israeli relationship has been a long-sought goal of the Obama administration, and the U.S. desperately wants significant progress by the time Erdogan visits the White House in mid-May.
The Turks have reveled somewhat in what they view as a diplomatic victory, with billboards in Ankara celebrating Netanyahu's apology and praising Erdogan for bringing pride to his country. Perhaps seeking to buffer his leverage further, Erdogan signaled shortly after the call that he was in no hurry to finalize the deal and pledged to visit the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory soon.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s special envoy to Turkey, Joseph Ciechanover, and National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror will be going to Ankara on Thursday for the start of talks on restoring Israeli-Turkish relations.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office said the talks are expected to focus on arrangements for compensating the families of the nine Turkish nationals killed in the flotilla raid, as well as Turkey’s promise to cease all legal proceedings against Israel Defense Forces personnel involved in the incident.
The Turkish negotiating team will be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç. His meeting with Ciechanover and Amidror will be the first high-level meeting between Turkish and Israeli officials since the crisis between the two countries ended last month.
The actual negotiations, however, will be conducted by Turkey's Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry, Feridun Sinirlioğlu, Ankara's point man on Israel since the raid on the Mavi Marmara.
The full restoration of bilateral relations is expected to take about three months. Turkey stressed that it will not dispatch a new ambassador to Tel Aviv until after the compensation talks are completed.
A senior Israeli official said these talks are expected to go smoothly and to be wrapped up relatively quickly. He said Israel has agreed to pay each family between $100,000 and $200,000, which he said was comparable with the amounts in comparable cases in the past. Israeli officials say they believe the Turks will demand more money.
The secretary of state is flying later Sunday to Israel, his third trip there in the span of two weeks. He'll meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Sunday night, followed by Netanyahu and other senior Israeli and Palestinian officials Monday as part of a fresh American bid to unlock the long-stalled Middle East peace process.
Kerry's conversations in Israel will also cover shared U.S. and Israeli concerns over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. and other world powers met the Islamic republic in Kazakhstan for another round of negotiations, but no breakthrough was announced on a proposed deal that would see international sanctions on Iran eased if Tehran convinces the world it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Kerry said the "door is still open" for a negotiated agreement, but that the onus was on the Iranians.
"If you have a peaceful program for nuclear power, as a number of nations do, it's not hard to prove that," he said. "They have chosen not to live up to the international requirements and standards with respect to verification of their program."
"They come to the meetings with very strict limits and they are really not free to have an exchange of views in order to try to find solution," Gary Samore, a former White House nuclear adviser told Army Radio earlier on Sunday.
"They [the Iranians] are not coming as real negotiators, but they are coming to present a position and to debate the other side's position without being in a position to look for common ground," he said.
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