By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday he would not quit the coalition government if it decides to apologize to Turkey for killing 9 Turks aboard a pro-Palestinian activist ship last year.
Lieberman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's most powerful and hawkish political partner, has publicly scorned meeting Ankara's demand that Israel atone for storming the Mavi Marmara as it led an aid flotilla toward the blockaded Gaza Strip.
But after Israeli officials said Netanyahu might relent after long balking at an apology, Lieberman denied having any plan to quit in protest.
"Whether or not there is agreement in the government about this matter, this government is strong," he told reporters. "No one is looking for excuses and reasons to leave the government."
Israel's debate over apologising to Turkey has been spurred by its expectation that an imminent U.N. report on the high seas interception will largely vindicate its Gaza blockade strategy.
Turkey, which like Israel had a delegate on the U.N. inquiry panel led by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer, has yet to sign the report and Netanyahu envoys have been in bilateral talks with Ankara in the hope of bridging the rifts.
The United Nations said the report was due out this month after several delays. Israel gave a July 27 publication date.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a center-leftist in the Israeli cabinet and vocal proponent of accommodating the Turks, on Sunday told reporters he hoped the release would again be deferred "to provide more time to examine matters in-depth."
The Netanyahu government has so far offered only expressions of "regret" at the Mavi Marmara bloodshed and proposed setting up a "humanitarian fund" for those bereaved or injured.
At the time, his advisers said a formal apology and damages payments would be tantamount to Israel admitting culpability for its marines' lethal gunfire during fierce brawls aboard the Mavi Marmara. Both sides have described the fighting as self-defense.
But Israeli officials say legal reviews have since found that placating the Turks so that they endorse the Palmer report, even at the cost of an apology, would shore up naval personnel against pro-Palestinian lawsuits in international courts.
"Alongside preserving the State of Israel's honor and asserting its righteousness, we have a supreme interest in protecting officers, commanders and combatants from possible prosecution aboard," Barak said.
Israel says the blockade prevents arms reaching Gaza's ruling Hamas Islamists, who are hostile to the Jewish state.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has shown willingness to engage Hamas, on Saturday reiterated his view that the blockade is "illegal and inhuman" and insisted Israel must end it as another condition for rapprochement.
"He's not exactly making it easy for us to apologize," said one Netanyahu aide in response.
Turkey, once a rare Muslim ally of the Jewish state, withdrew its ambassador to Israel after the incident in May 2010, suspended defense cooperation and closed its airspace to Israeli military planes.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Diana Abdallah and David Cowell)