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Diplomacy

Kerry asks Turkish premier to postpone Gaza trip

US Secretary of State John Kerry has asked Turkey's premier to postpone a trip to the Gaza Strip to avoid upsetting Israel. Meanwhile, Chuck Hagel has made his maiden trip to Israel as Pentagon chief.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a news conference in Istanbul April 21, 2013. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS)

Türkei Kerry in Istanbul

Kerry sought to cement a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey on Sunday, asking Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to postpone a trip to the Gaza Strip planned for May.

Although Israel and Turkey were once close allies, their relations plummeted in the aftermath of a 2010 raid by Israeli commandos on a Gaza-bound flotilla in which nine Turkish nationals were killed.

Last month, US President Barack Obama helped orchestrate a phone call in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan for the incident. In doing so, he promised to compensate the victims.

The US administration had already asked Erdogan once before to postpone his Gaza trip, which was originally supposed to take place this month. Kerry told reporters in Istanbul on Sunday that Washington was concerned that the trip could distract attention from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"We thought that the timing of it is really critical with respect to the peace process we are trying to get off the ground, and we would like to see the parties begin with as little outside distraction as possible," Kerry said.

Kerry also met with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, in Istanbul on Sunday to discuss the stalled peace process. The top US diplomat has presented a plan to invest money to help rebuild the Palestinian economy in an effort to improve conditions on the ground and pave the way toward renewed talks with Israel.

The secretary of state arrived in Istanbul on Saturday to attend a "Friends of Syria" conference, where he pledged to double nonlethal assistance to the rebels, bringing the total of aid to $250 million (191.4 million euros).

Hagel discusses Iran with Israel

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Israel for the first time as Pentagon chief on Sunday, where talks focused on Iran's nuclear program.

Although Hagel said there was "no daylight at all" between the US and Israel on stopping Iran's nuclear program, he acknowledged that the two allies did differ on the question of whether or not Tehran had decided to actually build a nuclear bomb.

"When you back down into specifics of the timing and when and if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon, there may well be some differences," Hagel said.

US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress last year, saying there was no evidence that Iran had made a decision to build an atomic bomb. Israel, on the other hand, sees increased uranium enrichment by Iran as a sign that it is pursuing nuclear weapons.

The defense secretary also said that Israel would have to decide for itself whether to take military action against Iran. While Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has pushed the international community to strike Tehran's nuclear program, the Obama administration has been keen to rely on sanctions and diplomacy.

"Israel will make the decision that Israel must make to protect itself, to defend itself," Hagel told reporters before landing on Sunday.

The Pentagon chief is on a weeklong tour of the Middle East, where he is expected to wrap up a $10 billion arms deal with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Hagel called the arms deal a "very clear signal" to Iran.

During his February confirmation hearing in the Senate, Hagel took heat from fellow Republicans for not being supportive enough of Israel, a charge he has denied.

slk/tm (AP, AFP, Reuters)