JERUSALEM The Israeli and Turkish prime ministers held an ice-breaking telephone conversation Friday in which the Jewish state thanked Ankara for sending firefighting aircraft to help quell a wildfire in Israel.
The chat was the first between Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan since the Israeli prime minister took office in March 2009.
Relations between the countries had soured after Erdogan's criticism of a 22-day Gaza war launched late in 2008, and worsened further after Israeli troops killed nine Turkish activists while intercepting a flotilla bound for Gaza this May.
"I told Erdogan that we appreciate the major efforts during this time and I am sure that this will be a gateway to improving relations between the two countries," Netanyahu said as two Turkish firefighter aircraft made their way to Israel.
In Ankara, a statement said Erdogan had expressed condolences for the 41 Israelis killed in the blaze Thursday.
"In the face of this disaster it was a humanitarian and Islamic duty for us to help," said Erdogan, adding Turkey would be "ready to make any form of help for the injured."
Ties between long-time Mediterranean rivals Greece and Turkey improved greatly after Athens rushed to help the rescue effort after a massive 1999 earthquake in Turkey. Israel also helped with the earthquake relief effort.
Greek and Turkish firefighting planes flew side by side in Israel Friday as they dumped water on the flames engulfing woodland near the Israeli port city of Haifa.
NO QUICK BREAKTHROUGH
However, Turkey's Anatolian news agency said Erdogan told reporters after his conversation with Netanyahu that Turkey would not fully restore relations before Israel met its demands to apologize and compensate flotilla raid victims.
"Our demands are clear and these subjects should not be mixed up," Erdogan was quoted as saying.
Israel has defended its raid as aimed at enforcing a naval blockade meant to prevent the flow of weapons to Iranian-backed Hamas Islamists in control of Gaza. It said its soldiers acted in self-defense when activists on board a Turkish-owned ship attacked them with clubs and knives.
Israeli officials have accused Erdogan of showing Israel the cold shoulder and openly criticizing its blockade of the Gaza Strip mainly as part of a bid to get closer to Iran and some Arab states still at war with the Jewish state.
One of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks suggested Israel thought Erdogan had deep-seated religious motives for souring ties.
"He's a fundamentalist. He hates us religiously," the cable from the U.S. embassy in Ankara in October 2009 quoted the Israeli ambassador to Turkey as saying.
Israel and Turkey had forged what both saw as close strategic ties in the 1990s, including open military cooperation, making Turkey Israel's largest Islamic ally.
(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Ankara; Editing by Janet Lawrence)