Israeli, Turkish leaders laud deal to restore ties

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israeli and Turkish leaders on Monday lauded a deal reached at the weekend to restore ties after six years of acrimony over a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed Israel's maritime blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip would remain after the agreement, though Turkey obtained aid concessions for the Palestinian enclave.

His Turkish counterpart Binali Yildirim said that "to this end, our first ship loaded with over 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid will leave for Israel's Ashdod port on Friday."

Yildirim also noted Israel's commitment to pay $20 million in compensation over the 2010 raid that killed 10 Turkish activists, in exchange for all claims against Israeli soldiers being dropped.

Netanyahu pointed to the economic benefits for Israel, with his country in search of regional customers for gas exports and talk of a potential pipeline to Turkey.

Speaking in Rome after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry, Netanyahu described the agreement as having "immense implications for the Israeli economy".

"I mean positive, immense implications," he said.

Kerry also hailed the deal as a "positive step", while UN chief Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, called it a "hopeful signal for the stability of the region".

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas spoke by phone overnight, with the Turkish leader explaining the agreement's main points, a statement from the Palestinian presidency said.

Erdogan also met with Doha-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Friday in anticipation of the agreement.

After the deal is signed on Tuesday, the approval process will start in both countries, and the Turkish premier said Ankara would appoint an ambassador to Tel Aviv within weeks.

- 'Spitting in our face' -

Previously close relations between Israel and Turkey were downgraded significantly after Israeli commandos staged a botched pre-dawn raid on the six-ship flotilla in May 2010 as it tried to run the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Nine activists aboard the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara ferry were killed, with a 10th person later dying of his wounds.

Both sides have been pushing to complete the deal in recent months, with Israel in search of a potential customer for its offshore gas exports and NATO member Turkey wanting to restore its regional clout, analysts say.

The United States has also pushed for the two countries to resolve the dispute as it seeks cooperation in the fight against extremists from the Islamic State group.

Within Israel, the deal was given a mixed response, with one newspaper quoting a soldier from the Mavi Marmara raid as saying "it's nothing less than spitting in our face".

"We were sent to stop a terrorist flotilla. That was the mission," Maariv quoted the anonymous soldier as saying.

"How is it possible today to pay compensation to terrorists who tried to murder us on board the ship? What message does that send to the rest of the troops?"

However, former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror hailed the possibilities and said the deal was long overdue.

"Remember, we are now in a very volatile area, and there are very few countries with which Turkey or we can make deals around the Middle East," Amidror told journalists.

"And it will be a huge mistake by both not to use this opportunity and to build better relations, better trade."

- Compromise on blockade -

Two of Turkey's key conditions for normalisation -- an apology and compensation -- were largely met earlier, leaving its third demand, that Israel lift its blockade on the Gaza Strip, the main obstacle.

Reports in recent days described a compromise on the issue.

Under the reported terms of the deal, Israel will allow the completion of a much-needed hospital in Gaza, as well as the construction of a new power station and a desalination plant for drinking water.

Turkey's aid to Gaza would also be channelled through the Israeli port of Ashdod rather than sending it directly to the Palestinian enclave, the reports said.

Ankara has also committed to keeping Islamist movement Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, from carrying out military activities against Israel from Turkish territory, "including fundraising for such purposes," Netanyahu said.

Hamas would continue to be able to operate from Turkey for diplomatic purposes, the paper said.

Netanyahu has also come under pressure within Israel not to agree to the deal if it does not include provisions for Hamas to hand over four missing Israelis, including the remains of two soldiers presumed dead and two civilians believed held alive by Hamas in Gaza.

He said that Erdogan agreed to instruct "relevant Turkish agencies to assist in every way in the return of the POWs and missing on a humanitarian basis."