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United States asked Turkey PM to delay Gaza trip: Kerry

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (3rd L) meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd R) during a luncheon in Istanbul April 2
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (3rd L) meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd R) during a luncheon in Istanbul April 2

By David Brunnstrom

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The United States asked Turkey's leader to delay a Gaza Strip visit so as not to upset U.S. efforts to revive Ankara's ties with Israel and Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has for years spoken of his desire to visit the Palestinian enclave, said last week he planned to go in late May after an official visit to the United States.

But Kerry said a Turkish visit to Gaza, controlled by the Hamas Islamist group which rejects Israel's existence, might distract from efforts to revive Middle East peace talks.

"With respect to the PM's potential visit to Gaza: We have expressed to the PM that we really think it would be better delayed and it shouldn't take place at this point in time," Kerry told a news conference in Istanbul.

"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 that we would like to see the parties begin with as little outside distraction as possible," he added.

Kerry has visited the region several times in recent weeks, holding talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Erdogan had been expected to visit Gaza this month but postponed his trip at the request of the United States. He will travel to Washington to meet President Barack Obama on May 16.

"I think the prime minister listened very graciously to that and he has been very thoughtful and sensitive about it and if needs be we certainly could have further conversations about it when he comes to Washington," Kerry added.

Hamas's refusal to recognize the Jewish state and past vows to destroy it are a key reason behind an Israeli blockade of the coastal territory since Hamas seized it from the more moderate pro-Western Fatah movement in 2007. Europe and the United States have long demanded Hamas drop violence and recognize Israel as a condition for any dialogue.

TURKISH-ISRAELI RELATIONS

The planned trip would also come at a sensitive time for Turkish-Israeli relations.

Obama last month brokered a first step in reconciliation between the two former allies, whose relations were frozen after the 2010 killing by Israeli marines of nine Turks aboard a Gaza-bound aid ship.

Netanyahu apologized in March to his Turkish counterpart over the killings and pledged compensation to the bereaved, meeting a long-standing Turkish demand. Turkey, for its part, appeared to back off on a separate demand that Israel stop blockading Gaza.

An Israeli delegation will visit Turkey for the first time in three years this week in a sign of thawing relations and Kerry said he discussed with Turkish officials the importance of "completing the task" in renewing ties.

"Tomorrow there will be a meeting that begins to continue down that road and I look forward to a fruitful completion of that initiative," he said.

Kerry said he wanted to see an improvement in life on the ground in Gaza, bringing goods into the enclave, while moving to full diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel.

"If allies who have differences have suddenly put those aside ... you have a much stronger ability to address other concerns that we may have," Kerry said, pointing to challenges posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions and civil war in Syria.

"There are huge reasons why it is beneficial for this rapprochement to be completed as soon as possible because it meets all of our strategic needs and interests," he added.

(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jason Webb)

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