JERUSALEM – Amid the pomp and circumstance during President Obama’s three-day visit to Israel, Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State John Kerry quietly worked on several diplomatic initiatives that could spur far-reaching changes in the Middle East.
Less than an hour before Shabbat last week, the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office said that the U.S. had facilitated a direct conversation between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which Netanyahu formally apologized to Erdogan for the 2010 “tragic loss of life” aboard a Turkish flotilla, the Mavi Marmara. Israeli commandos raided the ship as it tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza to deliver supplies. Nine people were killed in clashes on board.
The formal apology was supported by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, but was soundly criticized by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and several HaBayit HaYehudi Knesset members. HaBayit HaYehudi, led by Minister of Economics and Trade Naftali Bennett, is a member of the governing coalition.
Erdogan told Netanyahu that he accepted the apology and would work to restore diplomatic relations with Israel. The two, along with Obama, said that the longstanding relationship between Turkey and Israel was vital to the region in the midst of the Syrian civil war. NATO and American forces have dispatched missile batteries and other personnel in Israel and Turkey, and are poised for possible military action if the forces of Syria’s beleaguered president, Bashar Assad, or radical anti-Assad rebels use or transfer chemical weapons in the conflict.
An Israeli intelligence official told Israel’s Channel 10 News that they are all but certain that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against civilians and rebels over the past few weeks. Israel fears that Assad will transfer chemical weapons and long- range rockets to Hizbullah, which attempted over the weekend to stage a political coup in Lebanon. Sources report that nearly 50,000 Hizbullah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces are fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria.
Secretary of State Kerry stayed behind in Israel after the Obama visit and shuttled between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman, Jordan. He is seeking to create the groundwork for a peace summit in Jordan featuring Kerry, Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. And the Turkish media reported that Erdogan is preparing for a trip to Gaza and Ramallah in an effort to push the split Palestinian leadership – Fatah and Hamas – into uniting behind the idea of restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Obama told Abbas that he must recognize Israel as “a Jewish state” and restart negotiations with Netanyahu as soon as possible – without any preconditions. In a related note, Erdogan said that his diplomatic initiative has the support of the emir of Qatar, who has strong ties with the Hamas leadership while also possessing a secret back-channel relationship with Israel.
Reports circulating in the Israeli media say that Netanyahu and King Abdullah have held secret meetings in the past year in order to coordinate their positions vis-à-vis the deteriorating situation in Syria and the threats to their borders. They are also exploring ways to restart the peace process.