Israel PM apologies for Gaza flotilla deaths

Contains footage from Israeli Defence Force

Israel's prime minister has apologised to Turkey for "any errors that could have led to loss of life" during the 2010 commando raid on an aid flotilla that tried to breach the Gaza blockade.

Benjamin Netanyahu also agreed with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to compensate the families of the nine activists who were killed.

Mr Netanyahu had previously only expressed regret for the deaths.

The deal was brokered by US President Barack Obama during a visit to Israel.

Mr Erdogan's office said he had accepted the apology, "in the name of the Turkish people".

A senior official in Mr Netanyahu's office said he and Mr Erdogan had agreed to the return of ambassadors and the dropping of Turkish legal proceedings against four senior Israeli officers in absentia.

'Operational errors'

Nine people were killed on board the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, when it was boarded by Israeli commandos. The ship was part of a flotilla trying to transport aid supplies to Gaza in May 2010 in spite of an Israeli naval blockade.

Analysis

It took almost three years, the absence of Israeli former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and a presidential visit from Barack Obama to resolve the damaging diplomatic spat between Israel and Turkey.

The timing of their breakdown in relations could not have been worse for Israel, coming as it did just months before the region was thrown into turmoil after the Arab Spring revolts.

Mr Lieberman had refused to allow an apology, even though Israel found itself increasingly isolated in its new neighbourhood. But late last year he had to step aside to face charges of fraud and breach of trust.

Ending the dispute was important to Obama because Turkey and Israel are two of the US's closest allies in the region.

The fact, though, that the call took place in a trailer at the airport while Air Force One was sitting on the runway ready to leave suggests Mr Obama had to put pressure on Israel to give him something to take away from his three-day visit.

Analysis

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will see this as a clear victory. For years, Mr Erdogan had demanded from Israel an apology and compensation for the families of those killed. The Israeli prime minister has now offered both.

But the Turkey-Israel alliance may resume with little immediate warmth. Recep Tayyip Erdogan inherited the relationship from previous secular governments which shared Israel's wariness of neighbouring Arab states. But Mr Erdogan has often tried to make a point of standing up to Israel.

A year before the raid on the Mavi Marmara, Mr Erdogan famously stormed out of a debate in Davos after arguing with Israel's President Shimon Peres - a move that was widely supported here. In February 2013, Mr Erdogan delivered a speech in Vienna in which he called Zionism a crime against humanity. He stepped back from those remarks this week - a clarification that helped to clear the way for Israel's apology

The Israeli government admitted mistakes were made in intelligence-gathering and planning, but insisted its commandos used lethal force because activists had attacked them.

The activists said the troops had opened fire as soon as they boarded the vessel, which was in international waters at the time.

The incident provoked an international outcry and led to a major deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel.

Before departing for Jordan on Friday afternoon, Mr Obama revealed that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Erdogan had just spoken by telephone.

"The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security," the president said in a statement released by the White House.

A statement issued by Mr Netanyahu's office said that in the telephone conversation with Mr Erdogan he had expressed regret over the deterioration in bilateral ties and noted his "commitment to working out the disagreements in order to advance peace and regional stability".

"The prime minister made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life," it added.

"In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologised to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation."

The two leaders had also agreed to continue to work on improving the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian Territories, the statement said.

'Serious error'

A statement from Mr Erdogan's office said the two prime ministers had agreed on making arrangements for compensation for families of the dead activists.

"Erdogan told Benjamin Netanyahu that he valued centuries-long strong friendship and co-operation between the Turkish and Jewish nations," it added.

The BBC's Kevin Connolly in Jerusalem says Mr Netanyahu's change of heart is a clear indication of the diplomatic clout that the US still wields with its two key allies in a turbulent region.

The prime minister's call to his Turkish counterpart was apparently made from a trailer at Tel Aviv airport while Air Force One sat on the ground waiting to depart.

The unglamorous setting and the last-minute nature of the call suggests the deal may not have been easy to broker, our correspondent adds.

Israeli officials said the apology had become possible after Mr Erdogan qualified earlier comments about Zionism in an interview with a Danish newspaper. Mr Netanyahu expressed "appreciation" for the comments, his office said.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the decision to apologise a "serious error", Israeli news site Walla reported.

Correction 8 April 2013: The report said that the Mavi Mamara was an aid ship. It was a passenger ship that was part of an aid flotilla.

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