In a makeshift trailer set up on the tarmac at Israel's Ben Gurion airport, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netayahu called Turkish Prime Minister Racep Erdogan and Netanyahu apologized for the nine deaths that resulted from the boarding by Israeli soldiers of a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara.
Netanyahu's office issued a press release late Friday following the 30-minute call, which took place just before Obama boarded Air Force One for his flight to Jordan. Israel-Turkey diplomatic relations have been severed ever since the 2010 incident, in which the Mavi Marmara led a flotilla bound for Gaza meant to break the Israeli naval blockade. After repeated warnings, Israeli soldiers forcibly boarded the ship and were met by passengers wielding homemade weapons. In addition to the nine passenger deaths, more than a dozen other passengers and several Israeli soldiers were injured in the clash.
Obama and Netanyahu had spoken about the need to repair Israel-Turkey relations in their bilateral meetings and Netanyahu made the first step in the Friday phone call. Netanyahu told Erdogan that he regretted the deterioration of relations between the two countries. Netanyahu also said he had seen Erdogan's recent comments in a Dutch newspaper, where Erdogan said his claim that Zionism was a "crime against humanity" was misinterpreted.
"[Netanyahu] made clear that the tragic outcome of the Mavi Marmara incident was not intended by Israel and that Israel regrets the loss of human life and injury," Netanyahu's office said in the release. "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."
Netanyahu also told Erdogan that Israel has substantially lifted restrictions on what goods were allowed to enter Gaza and the two leaders agreed to continue to work on how to improve humanitarian conditions for residents of the Palestinian territories, the release stated.
Israeli and Turkish officials said after the call that diplomatic relations had been restored and each country would return its ambassador to the other. Obama released a statement after the call praising the development between the two leaders.
"The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security," Obama said. "I am hopeful that today's exchange between the two leaders will enable them to engage in deeper cooperation on this and a range of other challenges and opportunities."
A senior Obama administration official briefed reporters about the circumstances surrounding the call on the place en route to the president's stop in Amman, Jordan, and said that the White House has been trying to work with both Israel and Turkey to get them to mend fences for a long time.
"It's been difficult, but that's why this call that took place today was important, because it was a sign that both of them -- the two prime ministers said that to each other -- value their own relationship between Turkey and Israel," the official said.
Netanyahu initiated the call, brought up the flotilla incident, and apologized, the official said, and Erdogan said he appreciated the remarks and accepted the apology on behalf of Turkey. Erdogan also said "that he cherished the longstanding relationship between Turkey and Israel, between Jewish people and Turkey, and that he also wanted to have a better relationship," the official said.
Obama got on the line toward the end of the call, greeted Erdogan, and suggested they talk more in the near future. But Obama's participation in the call was minimal. Asked if Obama facilitated the call, the official said, "The timing of the call speaks for itself."
The White House doesn't want to take took much credit for the breakthrough, but the senior administration official said the warming of Israel-Turkey relations has been an administration goal for a long time.
"I think it would be accurate to say the president has been making this point to both leaders for going on a couple years now. So I think it's well known by both Turkey and Israel the importance we place on seeing these two close friends of ours have normalized relations," the official said.
But did Obama actually press Netanyahu to make the call?, one reporter asked. The official would say only that the two leaders had been discussing the issue over the last couple of days.
"I think [Obama] discussed the importance of Turkey and Israel working to repair their relationship, and the two of them in their discussions agreed on that, and Prime Minister Netanyahu placed a call," the official responded.
As for why the call took place in a trailer on the tarmac at the airport, the official explained that it was the only time the three leaders could get together on the phone.
The administration is presenting the call as a small but significant sign that Israel-Turkey relations are headed in the right direction. "We believe that the call today is an important step towards the normalization of that relationship," the official said.
UPDATE: Friday afternoon in Jordan, Obama explained the circumstances surrounding the apology call. Here's what he said:
With respect to the conversation that took place between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Erdogan, I have long said that it is in both the interests of Israel and Turkey to restore normal relations between two counties that have historically had good ties. It broke down several years ago as a consequence of the flotilla incident. For, you know, the last two years I've spoken to both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Erdogan about why this rupture has to be mended, but they don't have to agree on everything in order for them to come together around a whole range of common interests and common concerns.
During my visit it appeared that the timing was good for that conversation to take place. I discussed it with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and both of us agreed that the moment was right. And fortunately, they were able to begin the process of rebuilding normal relations between two very important countries in the region.
You know, this is a work in progress. It's just beginning. As I said, there are obviously going to still be some significant disagreements between Turkey and Israel not just on the Palestinian question but on a range of different issues. But they also have a whole range of shared interests and they both happen to be extraordinarily strong partners and friends of ours, and so it's in the interest of the United States that they begin this process of getting their relationship back in order. And I'm very glad to see that it's happening.
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Image
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.