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Israel, Turkey work to finalise deal on restoring ties

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JERUSALEM( Web Desk)- Israel and Turkey were expected to work towards finalising a deal on Sunday aimed at ending years of acrimony and restoring normalised ties that soured after a deadly 2010 raid on an aid flotilla.

Negotiators were said to be meeting in Rome, where Israeli Prime Minister Benja­min Netanyahu also landed on Sunday for talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

There were multiple reports in Israeli media that a deal could be announced as early as Sunday, though officials were declining to speak publicly on the talks.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Sunday afternoon, citing a senior Israeli official, that an agreement was expected to be announced within hours and that negotiating teams were meeting in the Italian capital.

Speculation that the highly anticipated deal was close came six years after an Israeli raid that killed 10 Turkish activists as an aid flotilla sought to run the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

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 militant Islamic State group.

If an agreement is reached, it would go before Israel’s security cabinet for approval on Wednesday, according to media reports and an Israeli official who requested anonymity. The talks to restore ties, ongoing for months, have been accompanied by a change in tone from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan, a stout defender of the Palestinian cause, in July 2014 accused Israel of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” over its offensive in the Gaza Strip that summer.

He has more recently said that “we, Israel and the Palestinians and the region have a lot to win from a normalisation process.” The about-turn came amid a drastic worsening of ties between Turkey and Russia following Ankara’s downing of a Russian warplane over Syria on Nov 24, which wrecked several joint cooperation projects including on energy.

Israel is also motivated to find new allies in the region, in part due to a need for export partners for its natural gas. There has been talk of building a pipeline to Turkey.

It has also found itself under increasing pressure over the lack of any progress on peace efforts with the Palestinians and has sought to build relationships with regional countries partly to counter such criticism.

In addition, normalised ties could open opportunities for further cooperation between Nato and Israel since Turkey’s objections would be lifted, analysts say.

“There’s the question of isolation,” said Dror Zeevi, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Israel’s Hebrew University. “Turkey’s lost almost all of its good relations with its neighbours … Israel doesn’t have many friends in the region either.” Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza in June 2006 after Palestinian militants there kidnapped an Israeli soldier.

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