Reconciliation talks between Israel and Turkey were set to begin Monday in Ankara, a month after a phone call between the estranged countries’ prime ministers set in motion a process of rapprochement.
One of the main focuses of the talks was to be Israeli compensation to the families of the nine Turkish nationals killed during the 2010 Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, which was en route to the Gaza Strip to break the naval blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory.
That incident sent already-reeling relations between Israel and Turkey into a tailspin of mutual recriminations and distrust.
Brokering the talks is US Secretary of State John Kerry, who on Sunday likened the families of the Marmara victims to those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings last week.
Kerry said he understood the anger and frustration of the Turks who lost friends and family in the raid. The former Massachusetts senator said the bombings made him acutely aware of the emotions involved.
“It affects the community, it affects the country. But going forward, you know, we have to find the best way to bring people together and undo these tensions and undo these stereotypes and try to make peace,” he said.
In the final minutes of last month’s visit to the region by US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to offer an apology for the deadly raid that brought the already rapidly deteriorating relations between the two countries to a new nadir.
US officials hope the discussions will jumpstart the process of restoring full diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors between two countries that Washington sees as vital strategic partners in the volatile Middle East.
But according to previous reports, the gaps between the two countries are formidable. For one thing, Turkey is demanding $1 million for each of the families of the Turkish citizens who were killed on the boat, while Israel has said it is willing to pay $100,000 to the families.
Prior to the rise of Erdogan and his Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party, Israel and Turkey enjoyed several decades of robust ties.
Erdogan has consistently and sometimes vehemently opposed Israel in the international arena. In February, he compared Zionism to anti-Semitism and other “war crimes,” precipitating a torrent of criticism from Israel and the international community.
Turkey has agreed in principle to drop charges against Israel and the IDF in return for the apology and compensation. However, the relatives of the nine activists killed on board the Gaza-bound ship have said they will not drop lawsuits filed against the former Israeli military commanders whom they hold responsible for the deaths.
In addition to an apology over the Marmara episode and compensation to the victims, Turkey was also insisting that Israel lift its naval blockage of Gaza, Erdogan told lawmakers in the Turkish parliament. Netanyahu, according to the Prime Minister’s Office account of the phone call with Erdogan, did not agree to lift the blockade.
On Sunday, Kerry said he had a “prolonged and constructive” discussion with Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, about “the importance of completing the task with respect to the renewal of relations between Turkey and Israel.”
Israel’s delegation to Turkey was headed by National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror and Netanyahu confidant Yosef Chechnover. They will meet with Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulnet Aric and representatives of the foreign ministry.
Asher Zeiger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.