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Kerry pushes Turkey-Israel rapprochement

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MATTHEW LEE | April 21, 2013 09:59 PM EST | AP

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ISTANBUL — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday urged Turkey to speed up and cement an American-brokered rapprochement with Israel, and he explored with Palestinian officials new ways to relaunch Mideast peace efforts.

Kerry tried to advance those second-term foreign policy priorities for President Barack Obama in meetings with Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Kerry also said he had made it clear to the Turks that a planned trip to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after his May 16 visit to the White House "would be better delayed and that it shouldn't take place at this point in time.

Both Israel and Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority is based in the West Bank, oppose the Gaza visit.

"We would like to see the parties begin with as little outside distraction as possible. So our sense is that it would be more helpful to wait for the right circumstances," said Kerry, who did not meet with Erdogan on this stop in Turkey.

On a trip to Israel last month, Obama secured a pledge from Turkish and Israeli leaders to normalize ties that broke down after a 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American.

But the rapprochement has been slow, fueling concerns that Turkey may be backsliding on its commitment.

Israeli and Turkish negotiators plan to meet this coming week to discuss Turkey's demand for compensation for victims of the flotilla.

U.S. officials hope the discussions will jumpstart the process of restoring full diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors between two countries that Washington sees as vital strategic partners in the volatile Middle East.

The raid sparked throughout outrage in Muslim-majority Turkey, making it politically difficult for Erdogan to bend to persistent U.S. appeals to improve relations with Israel.

In March, Obama extracted an apology for the raid from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that broke the stalemate.

Kerry said he understood the anger and frustration of those Turks who lost friends and family in the raid. The former Massachusetts senator said last week's Boston Marathon bombings made him acutely aware of the emotions involved.

"It affects the community, it affects the country. But going forward, you know, we have to find the best way to bring people together and undo these tensions and undo these stereotypes and try to make peace," he said.

Kerry said he had a "prolonged and constructive" discussion with Davutoglu, about "the importance of completing the task with respect to the renewal of relations between Turkey and Israel."

Kerry added that he believed Erdogan and Davutoglu "are deeply committed to fulfilling all of the obligations of that understanding."

U.S. officials are keen to see substantive process by the time Erdogan comes to Washington.

"We would like to see us get to a point where we are moving on improving the situation in Gaza, which was part of the agreement ... and where we are also completing the tasks of moving to full diplomatic relations between the countries, which would be very beneficial to everyone," he said.

With Abbas, Kerry discussed ways to improve the Palestinians' living conditions as a confidence-building measure to improve the atmosphere for a resumption of peace talks with Israel.

Kerry has said he fears there is only a two- or three-year window of opportunity to reach a deal on a two-state solution that would end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wants to move as quickly as possible.

Kerry was in Istanbul primarily to attend an international conference on Syria that began on Saturday and stretched into early Sunday as participants debated how best to boost aid to rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

He announced that the Obama administration would double its nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition with an additional $123 million in supplies that could include for the first time armored vehicles, body armor, night vision goggles and other defensive military supplies.

"I can't tell you how quickly it will change things on the ground," Kerry said Sunday. "I can promise you that as soon as I return to Washington, I am going to press as hard as I can" to get it to the opposition within a matter of weeks.

"This has to happen quickly, it has to have an impact," he added.

The additional aid, which brings total nonlethal U.S. assistance to the opposition to $250 million since the fighting began more than two years ago, "underscores the United States' firm support for a political solution to the crisis in Syria and for the opposition's advancement of an inclusive, tolerant vision for a post-Assad Syria," Kerry said.

The U.S. pledge was the only tangible, public offer of new international support at the meeting of the foreign ministers of the 11 main countries supporting the opposition and fell well short of what the opposition has been appealing for: weapons and direct military intervention to stop the violence that has killed more than 70,000 people.

The Syrian National Coalition is seeking drone strikes on sites from which the regime has fired missiles, the imposition of no-fly zones and protected humanitarian corridors to ensure the safety of civilians.

With the exception of the United States, none of the participants offered new assistance, although European nations are considering changes to an arms embargo that would allow weapons transfers to the Syrian opposition.

Kerry ended the day in Brussels, where he plans talks with European officials and was to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of a NATO-Russia Council meeting. He has said he has not given up on persuading Moscow to reverse its support for Assad.