RAMALLAH // Nearly three years after Israeli commandos raided a flotilla bound for Gaza killing nine Turks, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday issued a surprise apology to Turkey for the incident.
The breakthrough, engineered by the visiting US president, Barack Obama, also resulted in Turkey and Israel resuming diplomatic relations which were severed in the aftermath of the Israelis' dawn assault on the flotilla.
The May 2010 incident damaged Israel's relations with Turkey, once a crucial ally, as Ankara insisted on a formal apology before normal ties could be resumed.
"Prime minister Netanyahu expressed an apology to the Turkish people for any error that may have led to the loss of life, and agreed to complete the agreement for compensation," a statement from the Israeli prime minister's office said.
The apology came after a telephone call to Turkey's premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by Mr Obama, who arrived in Jordan last night after visiting Israel and the West Bank.
Mr Netanyahu's office said Israel and Turkey had "agreed to return normalisation between the countries including returning ambassadors, and cancelling legal procedures against IDF [army] soldiers", a reference to the high-profile trial in absentia of four top Israeli military chiefs by an Istanbul court that opened in November.
The Israeli leader told Mr Erdogan he had "good conversations with Obama about regional cooperation, and the importance of Turkey-Israel relations".
An aide to the US leader confirmed while en route to the Jordanian capital that Mr Erdogan had accepted the Israeli apology.
In Amman, Mr Obama announced an aid package of $200 million (Dh734.5m) to help Jordan care for Syrian refugees.
Mr Obama told a joint news conference after holding talks with King Abdullah II that he would ask Congress to provide the funds as "budget support" for Jordan to provide for the refugees, who the monarch said now numbered more than 460,000.
Before departing for Jordan yesterday, Mr Obama visited Israel's Holocaust museum and toured the biblical birthplace of Jesus in the West Bank city of Bethlehem with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Mr Obama's key moment came on Thursday when he addressed Israeli-university students in Jerusalem.
He warned them of the consequences of continued occupation of the Palestinian territories and of the consequences of not making peace with the Palestinians. Israel's status as both Jewish and democratic would other be endangered, he said.
However, Palestinian officials yesterday criticised the speech for lacking concrete proposals to revive the peace process. "US policy is biased toward the Israeli position," said Tayseer Khaled, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
During a press conference with Mr Abbas in Ramallah earlier on Thursday, Mr Obama said he did not support prodding Israel to halt building settlements - a key Palestinian demand for returning to peace talks.
Noam Sheizaf, an editor of Israel's left-leaning +972 magazine, said Mr Obama's speech signalled his frustration with Israel government, whose right-wing policy of settlement expansion threatens Palestinian statehood. Mr Obama left his speech ambiguous because he did not want to confront Israel's government again in an attempt to revive the peace process.
"He's staying above the fray and setting the terms for future engagement," he said. "But at the same time, it's clear he does not want to confront Israel. So the way the speech was constructed, anyone could find what they wanted in it."
Mr Obama briefly succeeded in restarting peace talks early in his first term, but those negotiations broke down because Mr Netanyahu refused to stop building settlements.
* Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse