- Associated Press - Sunday, April 7, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John F. 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, Mr. Kerry met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with the aim of firming up the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel that President Obama kick-started during a visit to the Jewish state last month.

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Mr. Kerry met later Sunday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before traveling 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,” Mr. Kerry told reporters at a joint news conference with Mr. Davutoglu. He said that meant promises of “compensation be fulfilled, ambassadors be returned and that full relationship 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, Mr. Obama arranged a telephone conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Netanyahu apologized for the incident, and compensation talks are expected to begin this week.

But Mr. Davutoglu suggested that full normalization of ties would probably take some time.

“There is an offense that has been committed, and there needs to be accountability,” Mr. Davutoglu said. He signaled 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Netanyahu’s apology and praising Mr. Erdogan for bringing pride to his country. Perhaps seeking to buffer his leverage further, Mr. Erdogan signaled 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, cooperation 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 neighboring 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.

Mr. Kerry, who noted his twice-weekly telephone chats with Mr. Davutoglu, spoke of shared U.S. and Turkish efforts to support Syria’s opposition coalition. The opposition has suffered from poor coordination 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 Syrian President Bashar Assad. The U.S. is only providing nonlethal aid to the rebels in the form of meals, medical kits and training.

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