President Shimon Peres sent a letter of condolence yesterday to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the death of the latter's mother last week.

Associates of Peres termed the letter a personal gesture of sympathy to which no diplomatic significance should be attached. Nevertheless, senior Foreign Ministry officials said they had recommended sending the letter in an effort to reduce bilateral tensions.

The letter also represents the first high-level contact between the countries since Ankara expelled Israel's ambassador over a month ago, following publication of a UN inquiry committee's report on last year's raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza.

In January 2009, Peres and Erdogan clashed publicly at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. During a panel discussion at which both spoke, they had a heated exchange over Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza earlier that month. The incident ended with Erdogan storming off the stage, and caused a further deterioration in the two countries' already tense relationship.

But after the May 2010 flotilla raid, in which Israeli soldiers opened fire after being attacked by Turkish passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara, Peres was one of the key officials urging that Israel apologize for the resultant death of nine Turks. He even twice offered to be the one to issue the apology.

The first time, more than six months ago, he suggested that he apologize to his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his forum of senior ministers rejected the offer.

The second time, a few weeks ago, Netanyahu and his senior ministers actually accepted Peres' proposal that he place a telephone call to Erdogan during which the two would trade apologies for the flotilla incident. But the Turks rejected the proposal: Though the UN inquiry had concluded that Ankara also shared some blame for the incident, Erdogan insisted that only Israel should apologize.