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Turkey's Help for Israel a Start at Mending Ties

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with the head of a Turkish delegation of fire fighters and firefighting planes that arrived at Ramat David air force base in northern Israel to help fight a wildfire, 03 Dec 2010

Turkey sent two fire-fighting planes to Israel to help contain deadly forest fires that broke out last week, and the move has been followed by diplomatic efforts to thaw relations between the two countries.

Following Ankara's decision to send Israel fire-fighting planes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed a telephone call to his Turkish counterpart to thank him.

This was the first conversation the two leaders have had since Israeli forces killed nine Turkish citizens last May, when they seized a boat trying to break its economic blockade of Gaza.

Political columnist Mehmet Ali Birand believes the deadly Israeli fire provides an opportunity to improve bilateral relations.

"Oh, it is very symbolic, it is very symbolic," he said. "And, it happened the first day. There was not hesitation. There was not consultation. I know the idea came from the Turkish Embassy in Israel, and they found the prime minister right away and he agreed."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend used an address to his supporters to publicly reach out to Israel.

He said some say we should turn a new page, an apology must be offered first, compensation must be paid first. But if a hand is extended with sincerity we will not leave it in the air, he said.

On Sunday and Monday, there were two high-level meetings between Turkish and Israeli diplomats in Geneva. But analysts say it will require a good deal of diplomatic skill to resolve the differences between the two nations.

"The government has engaged itself very concretely on these topics and would not want to give the impression of stepping down at this moment," said Semih Idiz, a diplomatic correspondent. "This would cost the government domestically in the political environment that we have in the country at the moment. So we have a bit of statement in which Turkey is expected to take steps but is not in a position to do so because of domestic politics."

Until recently, Turkey and Israel had enjoyed close political and military relations.

Last month the head of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, met with Prime Minister Erdogan and stressed the importance that two of its key allies resolve their differences.

"It is in the interests of everyone, Turks, Israelis, Americans and others that the relationship, which is an important one, between Turkey and Israel be renewed," he said.

The European Union also has called for Ankara to improve ties with Israel, and observers say Turkey also faces growing pressure on the issue from Middle East leaders.

Until the collapse in bilateral relations, Turkey had been playing a key role as a mediator in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But political scientist Cengiz Aktar, says the collapse in relations with Israel has significantly curtailed Turkey's regional influence.

"These peace and mediation efforts are dead. So Turkey's stance around the world cannot survive by antagonizing Israel," he said.

With a general election scheduled for next June, domestic policy is of heightened importance. But analysts says with Ankara facing mounting pressure from both its Western and Middle Eastern allies to resolve its differences with Israel, there is now a political will to do so.

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