JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and former defense chief flew to Istanbul on Wednesday, becoming the first Israeli cabinet minister to visit Turkey since ties ruptured in 2010 over a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters Environmental Affairs Minister Amir Peretz was attending a four-day U.N.-sponsored conference about Mediterranean marine and coastal environment issues.
Confirming a report on Israel’s Channel 2 television, the official said Peretz was the highest-ranking Israeli in Turkey since ties soured after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists three years ago when their vessel violated an Israeli blockade on Hamas Islamist-ruled Gaza.
An official at the Turkish Foreign Ministry also confirmed Peretz was in the country, but seemed to distance Ankara from the visit by saying “the invitations were made by the U.N. Secretariat, we are just the host country”.
The Israeli official would not say whether Peretz planned to meet any Turkish officials in Istanbul. A program indicated government officials would attend the event.
Peretz belongs to a party headed by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who also heads Israel’s U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians.
The United States has tried to mediate a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, and at Washington’s intervention Israel apologized for the fatalities in the flotilla incident.
Israel had earlier rejected Turkey’s demand for an apology, insisting the clash resulted from an attempt to breach its security. Israel says the blockade on goods destined for Gaza is aimed at preventing Hamas from smuggling in weapons.
Israeli-Turkish relations, once touted as one of the Middle East’s most strategic alliances, continue to be chilly at higher government levels.
In August, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of involvement in the Egypt military’s overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Mursi as president of Egypt, one of just two Arab countries that have a peace treaty with Israel.
Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Istanbul; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall