Erdogan says Israeli apology shows Turkey's new clout

ISTANBUL Sat Mar 23, 2013 2:15pm EDT

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media before his flight to Denmark for an official visit at Esenboga Airport in Ankara March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media before his flight to Denmark for an official visit at Esenboga Airport in Ankara March 19, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday an Israeli apology for the 2010 deaths of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists that was brokered by U.S. President Barack Obama met Turkey's conditions and signaled its growing regional clout.

"We are entering a new period in both Turkey and the region," said Erdogan, who plans to visit the Palestinian territories, including the Gaza Strip, next month.

"We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a phone call on Friday, agreed to meet Turkey's three conditions for normalizing relations, Erdogan said, though Israel's steps stopped short of Turkey's calls to lifts its blockade of Gaza.

These were a clear apology, compensation to the victims' families and a relaxation of the Gaza blockade, Erdogan told a rally broadcast live from the western town of Eskisehir.

Israel bowed to a demand by Ankara to apologize formally for the deaths nearly three years ago aboard the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish vessel carrying humanitarian aid and challenging Israel's naval blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip.

The men died after Israeli marines stormed the ship.

The incident wrecked diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel, once strategic partners.

Muslim Turkey 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.

"I expressed that normalizing (relations), which will facilitate regional peace, would depend on these steps," Erdogan told reporters on the train to Eskisehir, CNN Turk said.

SYRIA

Reviving the relationship is seen as a key source of stability as the two countries and their Western allies confront civil war in Syria and the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Netanyahu, in a post on his Facebook page on Saturday, said deteriorating circumstances in Syria were a main factor behind his decision to resolve the crisis with Turkey.

He reiterated Israel's fears of Islamist militants seizing Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and also entrenching themselves in areas near the Golan frontier with Israel.

"We are following what is going on there and are prepared to respond accordingly. It is important that Turkey and Israel which border on Syria can contact each other," he said.

Netanyahu said a visit by Obama who left Israel on Friday had "created a political opportunity to resolve the crisis".

The Turkish leader said Netanyahu had told him restrictions on consumer goods reaching Gaza and the West Bank would also be lifted and pledged to seek Turkish help in improving humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories.

(Reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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