Turkey gets tough with Israel over peace deal
ISTANBUL and RAMALLAH //Israel will have to end all restrictions on Palestinians and lift the Gaza blockade before Turkey restores ties.
The surprise demand yesterday by Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu is a diplomatic setback for the United States as secretary of state John Kerry arrived in Istanbul for his third trip to the region in the past two weeks.
Mr Kerry had hoped to firm up the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel that Barack Obama began on a visit to Israel last month. The US sees the two allies as anchors of stability in the Middle East.
But Mr Davutoglu made clear to Mr Kerry yesterday that Ankara wanted to call the shots in its reconciliation with Israel.
Suggesting that Israel would have to end its blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, he said all "of the embargoes should be eliminated once and for all".
"An offence has been committed and there needs to be accountability," Mr Davutoglu said.
Mr Obama scored a diplomatic victory by extracting an Israeli apology to Turkey for the killing of nine Turkish activists by Israel's military in 2010. The two countries agreed to restore diplomatic relations and for Israel to pay compensation to the victims' families.
Yesterday Mr Kerry also met Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and discussed Syria's civil war with Turkish officials. More than 250,000 Syrian refugees are in camps inside Turkey, which has joined Washington in opposition to the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
After meeting Mr Erdogan, Mr Kerry went to the West Bank for talks with the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
While wrapping up his visit, Mr Kerry said Turkey could play a major role in the Middle East peace process.
"Turkey can be a key, an important contributor to the process of peace in so many ways," Mr Kerry said.
Ankara could play a "very central" role in creating a climate for peace within the international community, Mr Kerry said.
"A country as strong and as vibrant, as energised and as transformative as Turkey can have a profound impact by being a partner in this process."
Israel's lead peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, ruled out Turkey taking an immediate role in reviving talks with the Palestinians.
"The idea is interesting, but it could take time," she said shortly before Mr Kerry flew in. "Regional leaders are important, every Palestinian leader who wants to negotiate must of course get the support of other countries in the region, but for the moment, we are fully involved in the efforts to bring about a resumption of direct negotiations, which the Americans are helping with."
US officials have said Mr Kerry would look for common ground with Mr Abbas for resuming Israel-Palestinian peace talks rather than offer a comprehensive American peace plan.
The Obama administration is believed to be exploring whether an initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia 11 years ago could become the basis for a Middle East peace plan. At the 2002 summit of Arab heads of state in Beirut, the League adopted the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi-inspired peace plan for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The initiative offered full normalisation of the relations with Israel. In exchange, Israel was required to withdraw from all occupied territories, including the Golan Heights, to recognise Palestinian independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as a "just solution" for the Palestinian refugees.
Mr Kerry is scheduled to meet Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem today.
Expectations of a breakthrough are low, but Washington last week received a gesture from Mr Abbas when he suspended attempts for further Palestinian recognition at the United Nations. This included efforts to bring legal proceedings against Israel in the International Criminal Court over its settlements in Palestinian territories, which are now home to more than 500,000 Israelis.
Last November, in a move opposed by both the US and Israel, the Palestinians won non-member-state recognition in the world body's general assembly. Israel retaliated by announcing thousands of new settler homes, including in sensitive areas between the West Bank and the desired capital of east Jerusalem.
A senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation said the leadership in Ramallah did not expect much from the visit by Mr Kerry. "Is he going to stop the settlements? I don't think so," he said.
Mr Abbas has demanded that Israel stop constructing settler homes as a precondition for joining Israel and the negotiating table. During a visit to the West Bank last month, Mr Obama said he did not support a settlement freeze.
During his first term as president, Mr Obama won a partial halt to settler construction that succeeded in resuming peace talks. But those negotiations quickly broke down, in September 2010, because Mr Netanyahu resumed building settlements.
* Hugh Naylor reported from Ramallah and Thomas Seibert from Istanbul
Updated: April 8, 2013 04:00 AM