U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Turkish leaders Sunday to speedily restore full diplomatic relations with Israel, two American allies the U.S. sees as anchors of stability in a Middle East wracked by Syria's civil war, Arab Spring political upheavals and the potential threat posed by Iran's nuclear program.
Turkey, however, demanded that Israel end all "embargoes" against the Palestinians first.
In Istanbul on the first leg of a 10-day overseas trip, Kerry met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with the aim of firming up the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel that President Barack Obama kick-started during a visit to the Jewish state last month.
Kerry met later Sunday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before travelling on to Israel.
"We would like to see this relationship that is important to stability in the Middle East and critical to the peace process ... get back on track in its full measure," Kerry told reporters at a joint news conference with Davutoglu. He said that meant promises of "compensation be fulfilled, ambassadors be returned and full relations be embraced."
The two nations were once close partners, but the relationship plummeted in 2010 after an Israeli raid on a flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip. Eight Turks and a Turkish-American died.
Before leaving Israel two weeks ago, Obama arranged a telephone conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdogan. Netanyahu apologized for the incident, and compensation talks are expected to begin this week.
But Davutoglu suggested that full normalization of ties would probably take some time.
'All of the embargoes should be eliminated once and for all.' —Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
"There is an offence that has been committed and there needs to be accountability," Davutoglu said. He signalled that Turkey would pursue a "careful" advance toward a complete restoration of relations, with compensation and an end to Israeli trade restrictions on the Gaza Strip as the stumbling blocks.
"All of the embargoes should be eliminated once and for all," he said, speaking through an interpreter.
Fixing the Turkish-Israeli relationship has been a long-sought goal of the Obama administration, and the U.S. desperately wants significant progress by the time Erdogan visits the White House in mid-May.
The Turks have reveled somewhat in what they view as a diplomatic victory, with billboards in Ankara celebrating Netanyahu's apology and praising Erdogan for bringing pride to his country. Perhaps seeking to buffer his leverage further, Erdogan signalled shortly after the call that he was in no hurry to finalize the deal and pledged to visit the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory soon.
From a U.S. strategic sense, co-operation between the American allies has only become more important as Syria's two-year conflict has grown ever deadlier. More than 70,000 people have died in the war, according to the United Nations, but the U.S. fears it could get even worse — by spilling into neighbouring countries or through chemical weapons being used. Both potential scenarios have prompted intense contingency planning among Washington and its regional partners, Israel and Turkey included.
Kerry, who noted his twice-weekly telephone chats with Davutoglu, spoke of shared U.S. and Turkish efforts to support Syria's opposition coalition. The opposition has suffered from poor co-ordination between its political leadership and the military factions leading the fight against the Assad regime, and from intense infighting among those who seek to guide the amorphous movement's overall strategy.
Turkey has gone further than the U.S. in its assistance, accepting some 180,000 Syrians as refugees and sending advanced weaponry to rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad. The U.S. is only providing non-lethal aid to the rebels in the form of meals, medical kits and training.
Kerry praised Turkey for its generosity toward refugees and commitment to keeping its borders open, an issue of growing U.S. concern as the outflow of Syrians stretches the capacities of neighbouring countries to accommodate them.
"The United States and Turkey will continue co-operating toward the shared goal of a peaceful transition in Syria," he said.
Although given short shrift at the news conference, a U.S. official stressed ahead of Kerry's meetings that he would also urge the Turks to remain cautious over the contentious issue of Iraqi oil.
Turkey wants to import oil directly from Iraq's autonomous Kurds in the north, a step that would enrage the central government in Baghdad and one the U.S. opposes. Washington doesn't want the riches of Iraq to bring the country back to sectarian warfare and has urged that any export arrangement get the Iraqi government's blessing.
The secretary of state is flying later Sunday to Israel, his third trip there in the span of two weeks. He'll meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Sunday night, followed by Netanyahu and other senior Israeli and Palestinian officials Monday as part of a fresh American bid to unlock the long-stalled Middle East peace process.
Conversations in Israel will also cover shared U.S. and Israeli concerns over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. and other world powers met the Islamic republic in Kazakhstan for another round of negotiations, but no breakthrough was announced on a proposed deal that would see international sanctions on Iran eased if Tehran convinces the world it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Kerry said the "door is still open" for a negotiated agreement, but that the onus was on the Iranians.
"If you have a peaceful program for nuclear power, as a number of nations do, it's not hard to prove that," he said. "They have chosen not to live up to the international requirements and standards with respect to verification of their program."
The other stops on his trip are Britain, South Korea, China and Japan. He returns to Washington on April 15.