Israeli and Turkish prime ministers speak by phone: Obama

JERUSALEM Fri Mar 22, 2013 10:35am EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured after laying a wreath at the grave of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Mt Herzl in Jerusalem, March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured after laying a wreath at the grave of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Mt Herzl in Jerusalem, March 22, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The prime ministers of Israel and Turkey spoke by telephone on Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama said, ending his visit to Israel with the announcement of a diplomatic breakthrough between the two divided U.S. allies.

Relations between Israel and its former strategic partner, Turkey, were badly frayed in 2010 when Israeli marines killed nine Turkish activists after boarding a boat challenging Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas Islamist-run Gaza Strip.

In a statement released by the White House only minutes before Obama flew out of Tel Aviv to Jordan on Air Force One, the president said Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone on Friday.

"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," he added.

The statement gave no details about the Netanyahu-Erdogan conversation -- the first between the two men since the Turkish vessel, the Mavi Marmara, was intercepted off Gaza.

A spokesman for Netanyahu, who held last-minute talks with Obama at Tel Aviv airport at the end of his three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, had no immediate comment.

Turkey has demanded a formal apology from Israel over the deadly naval raid, compensation for victims and their families and for the Gaza blockade to be lifted.

Ankara expelled Israel's ambassador and froze military cooperation after a U.N. report into the incident, released in September 2011, largely exonerated the Jewish state.

Israel has voiced "regret", short of the full apology demanded, and has offered to pay into what it called a "humanitarian fund" through which casualties and relatives could be compensated.

An improvement in Israel-Turkey ties would help regional coordination to contain spillover from the Syrian civil war.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Crispian Balmer)

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