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Israeli apology for flotilla deaths clears way for renewed ties with Turkey

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddle during their joint news conference in Jerusalem, Israel,Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

In a move that caught many observers off guard, Israel has apologized to Turkey for a 2010 incident on the high seas in which nine Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli commandos when they boarded a flotilla of protest vessels trying to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a 20-minute telephone call Friday afternoon, expressed "regret" to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for the "unintentional" injuries and loss of life.

"In light of Israel's investigation into the incident, which pointed to a number of operational mistakes, the Prime Minister expressed Israel's apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury and agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation/nonliability," read a statement issued by Mr. Netanyahu's office.

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The Mavi Marmara incident will long be remembered by human-rights groups as an effective, if deadly, protest – and by militaries for the lesson of not underestimating your opposition.

Israeli commandos boarded five of the six ships bound for Gaza on May 31, 2010, with little resistance. But when it came to the command ship, the Mavi Marmara, it was a different story. The first soldiers to drop on board from a helicopter brandished only paint guns, it was reported, and their lethal weapons were holstered. The men were attacked by protesters brandishing sticks, iron bars and knives, and were quickly captured; their weapons seized.

A larger group of commandos then descended to rescue their colleagues. This time, the Israelis' weapons were at the ready. In the fighting that followed, nine people were killed and several wounded.

The Turkish government, which had voiced its own objections to the blockade of Gaza on humanitarian grounds, denounced the treatment of the protesters. For its part, Israel insisted on the right to blockade the strip of land controlled by the militant resistance movement Hamas, arguing that weapons smuggled into Gaza would be used against Israelis.

Neither country would back down and, eventually, ambassadors were withdrawn, military co-operation curtailed and tourism dried up.

Failing to extract an apology from Israel and compensation for the victims, Turkey began a prosecution of four senior Israeli military officers in absentia.

That case now has been dropped, Israeli officials said Friday.

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The end of this dramatic rift shouldn't come as a surprise, said Tuncay Babali, Turkey's ambassador to Canada. Mr. Babali had said just last week that Turkey was willing to resume friendly relations with Israel if only there was an apology.

"We have so much in common," he said, "including our democratic values."

"For us, this dispute came down to a question of honour."

While the United States was instrumental in bringing the parties together, the ambassador said there had also been "a number of secret meetings" between the two sides.

The process was helped last year, he said, when Israel opened its border with Gaza to increased humanitarian assistance and trade, and extended how far out to sea Palestinian fishermen could operate.

It also benefited from Mr. Erdogan's interview last week with a Danish newspaper in which he recanted a recent remark he made regarding Zionism as "a crime against humanity."

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"Everyone should know that my criticism [was about] certain cases, particularly Gaza and the settlements," Mr. Erdogan said. It was "directed against Israeli policy," not against Israel's right to exist.

In his telephone conversation Friday with the Turkish leader, Mr. Netanyahu said he had seen Mr. Erdogan's interview and "expressed his appreciation" for the remarks.

Not everyone in Israel is pleased about this development.

Former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman called it a "grave mistake."

But army chief of staff Benny Gantz welcomed the news, saying he hoped it would boost the two countries' security and strategic ties.

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