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In Call Brokered by Obama, Turkey’s Erdogan Gets Apology From Netanyahu

March 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was a day of diplomacy for President Obama in the Middle East. He promised Jordan he would seek $200 million dollars in much-needed help to cope with an influx of refugees from Syria’s war. And before leaving Israel, he brokered a critical conversation between two regional leaders.

Once again tonight, Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: The last working day of President Obama’s Middle East trip saw an unexpected breakthrough on an issue that has hampered U.S. efforts to contain the conflict in Syria, a long-simmering dispute between Israel and Turkey.

On the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac before leaving Israel, the president facilitated an icebreaking phone call between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan. Despite shared concerns about the Syria conflict and other eruptions in the region, they haven’t been speaking for nearly three years.

Mr. Netanyahu apologized today for the death of nine Turkish activists during a 2010 Israeli commando raid on an aid ship bound for blockaded Gaza. That had brought a sudden halt to what had been security cooperation between the two countries. Today, Erdogan and Netanyahu agreed to normalize relations again. The president spoke of the call and the importance of that relationship this evening in Amman, Jordan.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And, fortunately, they were able to begin the process of rebuilding normal relations between two very important countries in the region.

You know, this is a work in progress. It’s just beginning. As I said, there are obviously going to still be some significant disagreements between Turkey and Israel, not just on the Palestinian question, but on a range of different issues. But they also have a whole range of shared interests. And they both happen to be extraordinarily strong partners and friends of ours.

And so it’s in the interest of the United States that they begin this process of getting their relationship back in order.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Obama had spent much of the day in Israel and the West Bank, visiting landmarks commemorating the history of the Jews, and one of Christianity’s s holiest treasures safeguarded by the Palestinians.

Mr. Obama had a few words when he got to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Here, on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear the state of Israel doesn’t exist because of the Holocaust. But with the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, such a Holocaust will never happen again.

MARGARET WARNER: In the afternoon, he met Palestinian President Abbas in Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity. It is said to be built on the site where Jesus Christ was born.

Mr. Obama was driven there through the Israeli checkpoints and security wall separating Israel from the West Bank, after a sudden sandstorm grounded the president’s chopper. It was perhaps a too-perfect metaphor for the tangled peace process he leapt back into this week.

From there, it was a short flight to Amman, capital of Jordan, the first Arab state the president has visited since the uprisings erupted in the region two years ago. King Abdullah has resisted the tide of revolution, but there are growing economic and political pressures on the Hashemite kingdom, chief among them, the conflict in Syria, its northern neighbor.

The king was the first Arab leader to call on Bashar al-Assad to go, and he is cooperating with the U.S. and others to make that happen. Jordan reportedly hosts U.S. and other special forces training the ragtag Syrian rebels. But the pressures come from a flood of Syrian refugees, some 460,000 now housed in squalid refugee camps, and the numbers keep growing.

The king was asked if he would consider shutting his kingdom’s borders.

KING ABDULLAH II, Jordan: How are you going to turn back women, children and the wounded? This is something that we just can’t do. It’s not the Jordanian way.

The problem is obviously the burden it’s having on Jordan. We have tried to quantify it as much as possible. The latest figure says it’s going to cost us roughly $550 million dollars a year. Not only is that a problem, but it’s going to be a tremendous strain, obviously, on infrastructure, and it’s creating social problems and security problems.

MARGARET WARNER: There are strains on Jordan too from the fact that an estimated half of all Jordanians are Palestinians from the West Bank. So King Abdullah has long urged the U.S. to get reengaged in trying to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The president said again today he was ready to do what he could.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: My hope and expectation is that, as a consequence of us doing our homework, we can explore with the parties a mechanism for them to sit back down, to get rid of some of the old assumptions, to think in new ways, and to get this done.

I can’t guarantee that that is going to happen. What I can guarantee is, we will make the effort.

MARGARET WARNER: Jordan is only one of two Arab nations that has made peace with Israel.