- Associated Press - Sunday, April 21, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Sunday urged Turkey to speed up and cement an American-brokered rapprochement with Israel, and he explored with Palestinian officials new ways to relaunch Mideast peace efforts.

Those are second-term foreign policy priorities for President Obama, and Mr. Kerry tried to advance them in meetings with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

On a trip to Israel last month, Mr. Obama secured a pledge from Turkish and Israeli leaders to normalize ties that broke down after a 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American.

But the rapprochement has been slow, fueling concerns that Turkey may be backsliding on its commitment.

Israeli and Turkish negotiators plan to meet this week to discuss Turkey’s demand for compensation for victims of the flotilla. U.S. officials hope the discussions will jump-start the process of restoring full diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors between two countries that Washington sees as vital strategic partners in the volatile Middle East.

The raid sparked outrage in Muslim-majority Turkey, making it politically difficult for the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to bend to persistent U.S. appeals to improve relations with Israel.

In March, Mr. Obama extracted an apology for the raid from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that broke the stalemate.

Mr. Kerry said he understood the anger and frustration of those Turks who lost friends and family in the raid. Mr. Kerry, a former Massachusetts senator, said last week’s Boston Marathon bombings made him acutely aware of the emotions involved.

“We have just been through the week of Boston, and I have deep feelings for what happens when you have violence, when something that happens when you lose people that are near and dear to you,” he said. “It affects the community; it affects the country. But going forward, you know, we have to find the best way to bring people together and undo these tensions and undo these stereotypes and try to make peace.”

Mr. Kerry said he had a “prolonged and constructive” discussion with Mr. Davutoglu about “the importance of completing the task with respect to the renewal of relations between Turkey and Israel.”

Mr. Kerry added that he believed Mr. Erdogan, whom he did not meet on this trip, and Mr. Davutoglu “are deeply committed to fulfilling all of the obligations of that understanding.”

Mr. Erdogan plans to visit Mr. Obama at the White House on May 16, and U.S. officials are keen to see substantive process by then. Mr. Kerry said MR. Erdogan’s visit “will be an important next step in this ongoing dialogue.”

“We would like to see us get to a point where we are moving on improving the situation in Gaza, which was part of the agreement … and where we are also completing the tasks of moving to full diplomatic relations between the countries, which would be very beneficial to everyone,” he said.

Mr. Erdogan’s plans to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip sometime in May after his trip to Washington have raised concerns. Both Israel and Mr. Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority is based in the West Bank, are opposed.

Mr. Kerry said he had made it clear to the Turks that such a trip “shouldn’t take place at this time.”

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