Lieberman Demands Netanyahu Backing in Face of Global Backlash

Foreign minister furious after learning of government's secret meetings with Turkey, arranged with Netanyahu's blessing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are scheduled to meet today in an effort to resolve their spat over Industry Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's secret talks with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Lieberman was furious at learning only after the fact that Ben-Eliezer had met Davutoglu in Brussels on Wednesday. The meeting took place with Netanyahu's blessing.

Avigdor Lieberman and Sergei Lavrov

When he meets the premier today, the Yisrael Beiteinu chief is expected to demand that Netanyahu promise such instances will not recur. Lieberman will also insist that the prime minister work to end the diplomatic shunning to which the foreign minister has been subjected in many countries.

Netanyahu is expected to tell Lieberman that there was no intent to embarrass him or act behind his back, and that the failure to keep him abreast of the meeting was a simple error. The prime minister will also likely pledge to make sure such an incident does not recur.

However, Netanyahu will insist that the meeting with Davutoglu was a sound decision, as the government should pursue every chance for maintaining dialogue with Ankara. Lieberman, aside from his pique at being left out of the loop, believes that the meeting was a diplomatic mistake, and that it will do nothing to repair the countries' damaged relationship.

A source close to Lieberman who has spoken with him in recent days said the foreign minister has been disturbed by Netanyahu's behavior for quite some time. According to the source, Lieberman is angry over what he sees as the premier's legitimization of the global boycott of his foreign minister.

"When a foreign country sets its terms and doesn't want to speak with Ivet [Lieberman's nickname], Netanyahu simply falls in line," the source said.

Lieberman associates said yesterday that the foreign minister seeks to clarify the circumstances behind the Brussels meeting and to ascertain whether Netanyahu had authorized Ben-Eliezer to convey any Israeli promises or commitments to the Turks.

Turkey has demanded for weeks that Israel apologize for killing nine Turkish nationals during its May 31 raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-flagged ship that was part of a flotilla protesting Israel's blockade of Gaza. Turkey has also demanded that Israel pay compensation to the families of the dead, and has said it will not return its ambassador to Israel unless Israel fulfills those conditions. It has also threatened to impose additional sanctions on Israel.

Jerusalem, however, has said it has no intention of issuing an apology to Turkey.

Immediately after news of the meeting between Ben-Eliezer and Davutoglu was made public Wednesday evening, Netanyahu sought to assuage Lieberman, issuing a statement that said a technical mishap was to blame for his failure to alert the foreign minister of the meeting. Netanyahu's aides also sought repeatedly to arrange a telephone conversation between the premier and Lieberman, but the latter screened calls from Netanyahu.

"The conversation [with Netanyahu] did not take place due to technical reasons," a Lieberman associate said caustically.

The prime minister then dispatched his communications adviser, Nir Hefetz, to inform Lieberman of what to expect in today's meeting.

In an interview with Israel Radio yesterday morning, Lieberman assailed Netanyahu's conduct in the matter. He criticized the premier for coordinating the Brussels meeting with both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the White House, while neglecting even to inform the Foreign Ministry, much less hold an in-depth discussion on Israel's policy toward Turkey.

"We must think about things before doing them, and set down guidelines that will prevent these things from happening in the future," Lieberman said. "I don't need to draw up a work contract with the prime minister, but this must be understood. There has to be a somewhat different set of considerations."

"What kind of political culture do we want the State of Israel to display?" he added. "What does proper governance mean?"

Nonetheless, Lieberman stressed, he has no intention of removing his party from the governing coalition. "We will not provide this pleasure to anybody," he said. "Yisrael Beiteinu is the most loyal component of the coalition, and this behavior of ours is a reflection of our basic loyalty."