JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A senior government minister cautioned Turkey on Friday that it was bound by international law in its challenge to an Israeli naval blockade on Gaza, but stressed that Israel was not interested in a war of words with its once-close ally.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday set the stage for a potential naval confrontation, declaring that Turkish warships would escort future convoys to the Gaza Strip to prevent a repeat of a deadly Israeli raid last year.
"The things Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan said are harsh and serious, but I don't think it would be right to get into any verbal saber-rattling with him," Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor told Israel Army Radio. "Our silence is the best response. I hope this phenomenon will pass."
Ankara downgraded diplomatic relations and vowed to boost naval patrols in the eastern Mediterranean after Israel refused to apologies' for killing nine Turks in a commando raid on a Turkish aid ship that tried to breach its blockade of Gaza, a Palestinian enclave ruled by the Palestinian Islamist Hamas.
Meridor also said that an inquiry commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had vindicated Israel's blockade, calling it a legitimate security measure to prevent weapons from the tiny coastal territory.
"Turkey, which claims that Israel is not above international law, needs to understand that neither is it (above international law). A U.N. committee has determined that the blockade is legal," he said.
The same committee called Israel's use of force in the 2010 raid "excessive and unreasonable", saying the loss of life had been "unacceptable". Israel expressed regrets for the deaths.
The United States has been hoping to ease tensions between its two main allies in the Middle East.
Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told Israel Radio: "We are encouraging both countries to find a way to work together to overcome their differences and restore at least some of the friendship that they previously had."
Earlier this week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel and Turkey will eventually mend fences rather than become foes, describing their spat over Gaza as "spilled milk".
In addition to an apology, NATO-member Turkey has demanded that Israel end the Gaza blockade. Israel says the closure is needed to keep arms from reaching Palestinian guerrillas by sea.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Crispian Balmer; and Mark Heinrich)