Livni, Turkish FM Hold Secret Reconciliation Talks

Top diplomats meet on sidelines of NATO summit; ties between nations strained since Gaza operation.

Israel and Turkey held secret reconciliation talks at the highest level Thursday in an effort to end weeks of friction sparked by Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Haaretz reported earlier in the day that the two countries have been holding low-key talks to end the crisis between them. But the Thursday meeting between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan was kept secret due to the sensitivity of the issue and fears that a leak would scupper the meeting.

Livni and Babacan met on the sidelines of a summit of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, during which both acknowledged the importance of the ties between the two nations, and discussed regional peace moves.

The pair also agreed that consultation at all levels between the two countries would continue.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry initiated the talks, proposing them a number of weeks ago in order to quell the tensions. Israel responded positively to the initiative, and quiet contacts between Jerusalem and Ankara were held in order to prepare for the talks.

During the preparatory meetings, the Turkish officials, in particular Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, significantly watered down their criticism of Israel's campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

The talks followed a letter that Turkish President Abdullah Gul sent President Shimon Peres a few weeks ago, in which he expressed the desire to visit Israel in the coming months.

A senior government official said the positive messages increased after Israel wrote the Turkish prime minister's bureau and the Turkish army that Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrachi had been reprimanded for criticizing Erdogan during a lecture.

Relations between Ankara and Jerusalem have been strained since Operation Cast Lead, but the rancor reached a new high during a public debate between Peres and Erdogan at the Davos Forum in Switzerland last month. In response to Erdogan's sharp public criticism, Peres raised his voice and hinted that Erdogan's statements contained untruths. Erdogan angrily stalked offstage in response.