Kerry urges Erdogan to delay Gaza visit on Mid-East peace push

ISTANBUL (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Turkey's prime minister on Sunday to delay a visit to Gaza after talks aimed at thawing frosty Israeli-Turkish relations as part of efforts to revive the Middle East peace process.

"We have expressed to the prime minister (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) that it would be better delayed," Mr Kerry told reporters in Istanbul, urging him to wait for the "right circumstances".

"It was our feeling in a constructive way that we thought that the timing of it is really critical with respect to the peace process that we're trying to get off the ground," emphasised Mr Kerry.

He added Washington would like "as little outside distraction as possible" as it tries to breathe life back into the peace process.

Mr Erdogan announced last week that he was planning to visit the impoverished Palestinian territory at the end of next month after a key trip to Washington on May 16.

The Turkish leader said his visit would be aimed at pushing for the lifting of Israel's embargo on the Gaza Strip but Washington fears such a trip could hurt a fresh US-brokered rapprochement between the former allies after a three-year rift.

Mr Kerry also met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to continue talks "about how to get both sides (the Palestinians and the Israelis) back to the table," a State Department official said.

Mr Kerry is working on a plan to try to boost the Palestinian economy as part of efforts to restore trust between the two sides.

But the Hamas rulers of Gaza hit back immediately, accusing Kerry and Abbas of "collusion in a bid to maintain the (Israeli) blockade on Gaza."

Peace negotiations have been suspended since the latest round ground to a halt shortly after their resumption in September 2010, largely over Israel's settlement construction on occupied land.

Mr Kerry warned on Wednesday time was slipping away to reach a peace deal, stressing for the first time there may only be a year or two left.

The top US diplomat also said he was "confident" Abbas would find a successor to replace his prime minister Salam Fayyad, who resigned earlier this month.

Mr Kerry said Fayyad, whose authority was never recognised by Hamas, was a personal friend and a "good man who has worked incredibly hard" for the development of the Palestinians.

"That said, this initiative, this dream, this effort we are working towards is bigger than one man," he said.

"President Abbas made very clear that he understands the international concerns about accountability, about transparency," he added.

Mr Kerry's talks with Erdogan focused mainly on restoring predominantly Muslim Turkey's once-close ties with Israel.

Israeli and Turkish officials meet on Monday for talks on compensation over a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship, which if successful could heal the two countries' rocky relations.

A State Department official said the United States was "continuing to encourage" attempts to bolster ties and that efforts needed to be made "one step at a time," starting with the compensation issue.

A strong ally for both Turkey and Israel, Washington has been trying to repair ties which collapsed after the botched Israeli raid killed nine Turkish activists on the Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010.

After long refusing Ankara's demand for a formal apology, Israel last month finally made the gesture at the urging of US President Barack Obama.

But for the full restoration of ties and reappointment of its ambassador to Israel, Ankara insists the Jewish state pay compensation for the raid victims and lift its punishing restrictions on Gaza.

Abbas's West Bank-based nationalist Fatah movement, a long-time rival to Hamas, has said Mr Erdogan's plans to visit Gaza would foster intra-Palestinian divisions.

Mr Kerry was in Istanbul mainly to attend talks among the 11-member core group of the pro-opposition "Friends of Syria", including the United States, European nations and Arab countries.

After more than six hours of talks that ended early Sunday, Mr Kerry said US assistance to the opposition battling President Bashar al-Assad would double to US$250 million (S$309 million).

He said the United States would expand deliveries of military equipment to rebel fighters to include new types of "non-lethal supplies", but ignored opposition demands for weapons and drone strikes on Assad regime positions.