Ben-Eliezer Meets With Turkish FM in Effort to Resolve Bilateral Crisis

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman fumes after being left out of the loop

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer yesterday held a covert meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Europe to discuss ways of resolving the crisis between Israel and Turkey.

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Turkish FM Ahmet Davutoglu.

The content of the meeting was not disclosed, but Turkey has demanded in the past few weeks that Israel apologize for killing nine Turkish nationals during its May 31 raid of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-flagged ship that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla aimed at protesting Israel's blockade of Gaza. Turkey has also demanded that Israel pay compensation to the families of the dead.

Turkey has said it will not send an ambassador back to Israel unless Israel fulfills those conditions, and has threatened to impose sanctions against Israel.

Although Ben-Eliezer has been pushing for closer ties between Ankara and Jerusalem, he said a few days ago that Israel has no intention of apologizing to Turkey for the flotilla interception, because the Israel Navy acted lawfully.

The meeting was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but not coordinated with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was furious to hear of it.

Lieberman's aides issued an unusually pointed statement, accusing Netanyahu of breaching his trust.

"The foreign minister takes a grim view of the fact that the ministry was not informed," the statement said. "It is a breach of all the proper procedures and a serious blow to the trust between the foreign minister and prime minister. Lieberman intends to sort this out thoroughly."

The Prime Minister's Bureau said Netanyahu's failure to inform Lieberman of the meeting was a mistake made in good faith and that the prime minister would explain it to Lieberman.

Ben-Eliezer had told Netanyahu that a senior Turkish official had asked him for an unofficial meeting, Netanayhu's bureau said in a statement.

"The prime minister saw no reason not to have the meeting," the statement said. "In recent weeks there have been various initiatives for contacts with Turkey, which the Foreign Ministry knew about. The failure to update the ministry was due merely to a technical reason. The prime minister is fully cooperating with the foreign minister."

The meeting with Davutoglu was reported by Channel 2 yesterday. Senior government officials confirmed the report and said Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had approved the meeting. It was the first time Israeli and Turkish ministers met since the flotilla raid.

A day before Israel intercepted the flotilla, Netanyahu and Davutoglu were due to meet in Washington, but the meeting was canceled after the raid.

Relations between Jerusalem and Ankara started heading downhill in the winter of 2008-2009, when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Israel and accused it of committing war crimes against the Palestinians.

The ties deteriorated further in the past 18 months, partly due to Deputy Foreign Minister Dan Ayalon's degrading treatment of Turkey's ambassador to Israel.

Ben Eliezer has been pushing to improve the relations between the two countries for some time and visited Ankara about six months ago as part of his efforts to do so. Since the flotilla raid, he has been calling for immediate steps to stop the deterioration in bilateral relations. He has also come out publicly against calls to boycott imported Turkish foods.