- Associated Press - Sunday, March 24, 2013

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday suggested that “normalization” of ties with Israel would take time, hinting that Turkey wanted to ensure the victims of a flotilla raid were compensated and Israel remained committed to the easing of restrictions of goods to Gaza before relations are restored between the two nations.

Mr. Erdogan’s comments came days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Turkish leader to apologize for the botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010 that killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. Mr. Erdogan accepted the apology, and both leaders said they would begin the work of restoring full relations.

But in a public address Sunday, Mr. Erdogan suggested there would be no quick restoration of ties.

“We have said: ‘An apology will be made, compensation will be paid, and the blockade on Palestine will be lifted. There will be no normalization without these,” he said. “Normalization will happen the moment there is an implementation. But if there is no implementation, then I am sorry.”

The statement was largely seen as effort to ease concerns of his religious and pro-Palestinian support base. Mr. Erdogan has won praise both at home and the Arab world for his criticism of Israel and for breaking off ties with the Jewish state over the flotilla raid.

Turkey and Israel were once strong allies, but relations began to decline after Mr. Erdogan, whose party has roots in Turkey’s Islamist movement, became prime minister in 2003. Mr. Erdogan has embarked on a campaign to make Turkey a regional powerhouse in an attempt to become a leading voice in the Muslim world, distanced from Israel.

Animosity increased after the flotilla incident, and ambassadors later were withdrawn. Mr. Netanyahu previously refused to apologize, saying Israeli soldiers acted in self-defense after being attacked by activists.

Israel lifted most restrictions on the import of goods into Gaza following the flotilla incident, and only restrictions on some construction materials and most exports remain in effect.

During Friday’s conversation between the two leaders, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel had substantially lifted the restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into Gaza and the Palestinian territories and this would continue as long as “calm prevailed.” 

But Israeli military officials have taken to punishing Gaza residents for breaches of a November truce. Since Thursday, in response to militant rocket fire from the territory, all movement through a civilian crossing between Gaza and Israel was cancelled, except for humanitarian cases. Gaza fishermen had their permitted fishing territory restricted, and a commercial-goods crossing was shut down, according to the Israeli rights group Gisha.

An Israeli military spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the restrictions.

Mr. Netanyahu said Saturday that concerns over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile were the motivating factor in restoring ties with Turkey. He said the two countries, which border Syria, needed to communicate with each other over the issue.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said Sunday he would be willing to shake hands with his Turkish counterpart “soon,” saying friendly ties were in both countries’ interest.

“I can think of a thousand reasons why Turkey and Israel should be friends. I cannot find one reason why they shouldn’t be friends,” Mr. Peres said in an interview with Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper. His comments were provided by Mr. Peres’ office.

He said Israel‘s real threat is a nuclear Iran.

Turkey and Iran are like day and night,” he said.

Responding to a longstanding Turkish demand that Israel rid itself of its suspected nuclear weapons, Mr. Peres hinted at the existence of nuclear weapons in the country, which Israel has never officially confirmed.

“Once the Middle East will be free from threat, there won’t be any need for nuclear weapons. Israel is a country which is being threatened with destruction. Turkey is a country nobody is threatening,” Mr. Peres said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Erdogan said he plans to travel to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank “within the month, in April.”

• Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid and Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem contributed to this article.

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