WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the importance of Israel reaching a path to reconciliation with Turkey during an hour-long meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday, Barak’s office said.

The issue also came up in talks Barak held earlier in the day at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

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Washington – which believes a strong US-Israel-Turkey is critical for Middle East stability – has brought pressure to bear on both Jerusalem and Ankara to find a formula to end the crisis over the Mavi Marmara, according to diplomatic officials.

Barak has come out as the key advocate in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s inner forum urging Israel to take steps necessary to bring about a normalization of ties with Turkey.

Turkey is demanding Israel apologize for May 2010’s Mavi Marmara raid, pay compensation to the families of the nine men killed, and lift the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian issue was also discussed in Barak’s talks, specifically efforts to find a formula that would enable the restarting of negotiations with the Palestinians. During the discussion with Clinton, Barak’s statement said, they spoke of the need to continue to strengthen and support economic development in the West Bank in order to prevent deterioration there and a return to violence.

Later on Thursday, Barak was due to meet with new US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a discussion expected to focus on regional threats, particularly the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and the implications of the upheaval roiling the Middle East.

Barak, who is due to visit with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York on Friday, was also meeting with key legislators dealing with foreign aid on Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon.

He was scheduled to discuss the US-Israel bilateral relationship and ongoing American assistance to Israel with Reps. Kay Granger (RTexas) and Nita Lowey (D-New York), the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the House subcommittee for foreign appropriations.

Their subcommittee passed by voice vote on Wednesday a budget for next year that would reduce the overall foreign operations budget by 18 percent, but leave more than $3 billion in aid for Israel untouched.

The bill is scheduled to be considered by the whole committee next week, days before Congress leaves for its summer recess, but the vote might get scrapped until Congress reconvenes in the fall.

Also on Capitol Hill on Wednesday afternoon, two senior State Department officials blasted Syria’s and Iran’s human rights records and defended the Obama administration’s policy as supporting dissidents trying to make change in their countries.

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“Our concerns about these countries’ horrendous human rights abuses are longstanding, but never has their repression been more flagrantly at odds with the realities of the region – the irrepressible demands for democracy and fundamental human rights that have already swept two leaders from power,” Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Posner said in written testimony presented ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.

They underscored American efforts to combat such practices with sanctions and the vigilance of US Ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford.

“Going forward, the United States will expand our efforts to answer the call of Syrian and Iranian citizens that their governments be held accountable for their actions,” they said.

Pointing to their work with local civil society groups, they continued, “Our efforts to support the Iranian and Syrian people as they seek to exercise their rights have been consistent and sustained.”

Many, however, disagree with that assessment, as even some allies of the administration have been critical of it for not doing enough to support opposition groups in these countries and for leaving much of the heavy lifting, such as providing communications devices and alternative networks, to NGOs and private groups.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-New York), ranking member of the Middle East House subcommittee holding Wednesday’s hearing, took aim at the US posture on Syria despite being of the same party as the administration.

“We are far from weak, powerless or isolated. But with regard to Syria, we have, nonetheless, failed to act,” he said, comparing the situation to the inaction that led to the extermination of Eastern European Jewry during the Holocaust.

“I have tried to explain our policy to Syrian-Americans, almost trembling with anxiety for their relatives, and I have failed, principally, I think, because our policy is so completely incoherent,” Ackerman said.

“Somehow, it manages to combine colossal moral failure and unimaginable strategic imbecility with the overpowering stench of hypocrisy, thanks to our feckless intervention in Libya. Congratulations, gentlemen, you’ve hit the policy failure trifecta.”

He warned, “History will record not only how we mostly ignored the people of Syria in their hour of need, but worse, how we overlooked our own blindingly obvious national interests in the demise of the Assad regime.”

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