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Erdogan meets Hamas chief as normalization of Israeli relations draws near

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met the exiled political chief of the Islamic militant group Hamas Khaled Mashaal. Ankara seems to want to improve its relations with Israel after six years of hostility.

Friday's meeting in Istanbul was ostensibly about humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, but the meeting fueled speculation that Erdogan will try to rein in the group's activities.

Turkey has close ties with Hamas, which has controlled the blockaded Gaza Strip for nearly a decade and does not recognize Israel. It is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the US but is active in Turkey.

To normalize relations with Israel, Ankara must persuade Hamas to limit its activities, while Israel has agreed to apologize for a 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that left ten dead, and compensate the victims' families. Israel has not yet fulfilled a third condition - to lift its blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Relations soured

Turkey - the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel - has had poor relations with the Jewish state since Erdogan took power, with his perceived anti-Israeli rhetoric. This is widely considered to have shown a shift in Turkish interests in the Middle East and a realignment from a secular Israeli-oriented stance to an Islamist pro-Arab one.

The two countries previously had strong bilateral ties, but they deteriorated after Israel's bombardment of the

Gaza Strip

in early 2009. Then in 2010, Israeli naval commandos raided an aid flotilla heading to Gaza.

In March 2013

Israel apologized

for the raid in which ten activists on the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara ferry were killed, sparking a bitter diplomatic crisis. All 10 were Turkish nationals.

Ankara's new foreign policy stance

Turkey may now be pursuing a more conciliatory foreign policy following the departure of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. His successor Binali Yildirim said last week he wanted "no permanent tensions with neighbors" after serious ruptures with Israel as well as Egypt and Russia.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier in June that Turkey was "one or two meetings" away from normalizing ties with Israel. Turkish media reported that a meeting could take place on Sunday, followed by an announcement on the normalization of ties.

The "Hurriyet" newspaper said this week that an announcement would be made after talks between Turkish foreign ministry official Feridun Sinirlioglu and Israel's point man on Turkish relations, Joseph Ciechanover.

"Whether a deal can be reached at the first upcoming meeting depends on the steps to be taken by Israel," Cavusoglu told a news conference in Ankara.

"Our conditions are not very complicated; they are plain conditions," Cavusoglu said. "They need to be fulfilled the same as our apology demand."

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jbh/bk (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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