By Matthew Kalman / www.nydailynews.com
JERUSALEM — President Obama brokered a surprise peace deal here Friday but it was between Israel and Turkey, not the Palestinians.
Obama helped secure an Israeli apology for a 2010 commando raid on a Turkish ship that resulted in nine deaths while Israel was enforcing a naval embargo on Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally extended Israel’s regrets and offered compensation in a phone call to his long-furious Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At one point, Obama even got on the line.
In return, Turkey restored full diplomatic relations between the two nations — once close allies in the fractious Middle East.
Before departing for Jordan and the final leg of his Middle East trip, Obama made a series of visits in Israel filled with symbolism.
He paid his respects at the graves of murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Zionist founding father Theodor Herzl.
Following the Jewish tradition of laying a simple stone on a tomb when visiting, Obama brought to Rabin’s grave a pebble from the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington.
He also toured the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — the biblical birthplace of Jesus — and paid his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Wearing a Jewish skull cap, Obama re-kindled the memorial flame in the stark hall containing the names of the death camps and ashes from the Nazi crematoria, and then toured the Children’s Exhibition where he heard recited the names of some of the 1.5 million Jewish children killed by the Nazis among a mirrored darkness illuminated by hundreds of flickering lights.
Obama’s stop at Herzl’s grave, whose vision for a Jewish state predated the Holocaust, seemed intended to undo the message of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech where he suggested that the main reason for Israel’s existence was the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust. That Cairo speech drew harsh criticism in Israel.
At Yad Vashem, Obama said, “Here on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear … the state of Israel does not exist because of the holocaust, but with the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, such a holocaust will never happen again.”
Hours earlier, speaking to Israeli students, he reminded his audience of Dr. King’s respect for Jewish tradition and the lessons of next week’s Passover Seder that celebrates the liberation from slavery to the promised land.
“To African Americans, the story of the Exodus was perhaps the central story, the most powerful image about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity,” Obama said.
“As Dr. Martin Luther King said on the day before he was killed, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.'”