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Israel and Turkey still have “significant disagreements,” according to President Barack Obama, who discussed his role in easing tensions between the two Middle Eastern countries during a press conference Friday afternoon in Jordan.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised observers Friday morning when he apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a deadly 2010 incident between the two nations.
Obama discussed his efforts to convince Netanyahu to issue the apology during a joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah.
“I have long said that it is in both the interests of Israel and Turkey to restore normal relations between two countries that have historically had good ties,” Obama said in Jordan in response to a question from a reporter.
“For the last two years I’ve spoken with Prime Ministers Netanayhu and Erdogan” about how reconciling their differences following Israel’s 2010 siege of a Turkish flotilla that attempted to breach Israeli waters, Obama said.
Erdogan has long demanded that Netanyahu apologize for the botched siege, which led to the deaths of several Turkish passengers after an armed riot broke out on the vessel.
Erdogan and Netanyahu “don’t have to agree on everything in order for them to come together on a wide range of common interests and concerns,” said Obama, referring to joint regional security projects.
Obama broached the sensitive issue with Netanyahu during his two-day tour of the Jewish state.
The “timing was good for that conversation to take place … and both of us agreed the moment was right” to “begin the process of rebuilding,” Obama said. “This is a work in progress. It’s just the beginning.”
Netanyahu phoned Erdogan early Friday to offer his apology and discuss ways to get the Turkey-Israel alliance back on track. The relationship between the two once-close countries has deteriorated significantly since the 2010 incident.
“The two men agreed to restore normalization between Israel and Turkey, including the dispatch of ambassadors and the cancellation of legal steps against IDF soldiers,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement following the phone call.
“The Prime Minister expressed regret over the deterioration in bilateral relations and noted his commitment to working out the disagreements in order to advance peace and regional stability,” the statement said.
Erdogan reportedly told Netanyahu that “the recent deterioration of the relationship between Turkey and Israel, which he sees as having vital strategic importance for the peace and stability of the region, is regrettable,” according to a statement issued by Erdogan.
“He reiterated Turkey's support for all international and regional efforts to find a just, lasting, and comprehensive resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict on the basis of the two-state vision,” the statement said.
Erdogan also requested that Israel lift its “blockade” on the Gaza Strip, home to the terror group Hamas, which fired rockets into Israeli territory during Obama’s trip.
Regional observers said the apology puts the onus on Erdogan to tone down his rhetoric against Israel, which has become increasingly pointed in recent weeks.
Turkey also maintains ties with Iran, providing the rogue regime with an economic lifeline as sanctions cripple its economy.
It will take time to know if Netanyahu’s apology will repair the breach, experts said.
“It depends on whether it actually leads to renewed cooperation between Turkey and Israel,” said Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “The Turks have been exposed by the Arab Spring and the collapse of their zero problems policy. From the U.S. point of view, it would make sense for Turkey to rekindle ties with Israel, given the current geopolitical situation.”
There are also political benefits for Israel, Badran said.
“From Israel's point of view, this is a smart move with respect to gaining points with President Obama,” he added. “If Prime Minister Erdogan reacts badly, it will work for Prime Minister Netanyahu's benefit.”
Erdogan’s anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric could continue to spark problems between the two nations.
“I’m sure [the apology] is a good thing in general, to put this behind, but the idea this apology would somehow change the relationship between these two countries is unrealistic,” said Jonathan Schanzer, FDD’s vice president of research.
Badran said the disagreements between the Israel and Turkey remain large.
“The problem is whether an Israeli apology was ever really what was needed to fix this relationship,” he said.
Steve Clemons, an Atlantic writer close to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, said there is still hope for Turkey and Israel to rekindle ties.
“Turkey and Israel have been natural, strategic allies for a long time—and thus it was unusual to see the heightening tensions,” Clemons wrote in an email. “This could be a major pivot back to the strong geostrategic ties—which makes sense for both sides given concerns about Syria and Iran in the region.”
However, Erdogan’s rhetoric could always damage the relationship once more.
“Erdogan's tantrums against Israel are rooted in a strong domestic component,” Badran said. “With his foreign policy undermined and constantly criticized, there's an incentive for Erdogan to continue ranting against Israel. So are we going to see a redefined relationship with Israel? It's unclear at this point.”