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Friday, 2 July 2010

Israel and Turkey hold secret talks in bid to mend fences

THE IRISH TIMES
Friday, July 2, 2010

MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem

ISRAEL AND Turkey have held secret high-level talks in an effort to repair their crumbling relations after the deaths of nine Turkish activists in an Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound ship at the end of May.

According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet, the secret two-hour session in Brussels on Wednesday between Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israeli industry minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was initiated after strong pressure from President Obama.

The two ministers discussed ways to restore ties between Israel and Turkey, according to Turkish media reports. The meeting was mediated by an Israeli businessman and the US ambassador in Ankara.

The surprise meeting came as Turkey, once Israel’s closest Muslim ally, stepped up its demands for an international inquiry into the flotilla deaths, plus a public apology and compensation from Israel. Last week it closed its airspace to flights by the Israeli military, with whom it once had a very close relationship.

Mr Ben-Eliezer has longstanding ties with Turkey. Mr Davutoglu, a former university professor, is regarded as the strategic architect of Turkey’s aggressive new foreign policy consequent on strong opposition to its membership of the European Union.

The fact that Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was not made aware of the talks triggered a public row yesterday.

With 15 members in the 120- seat Knesset, Mr Lieberman’s party is prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s senior coalition partner. Without it, the government does not have a majority.

In a statement, Mr Lieberman’s office slammed the incident as “an insult to the norms of accepted behaviour and a heavy blow to the confidence between the foreign minister and the prime minister”.

Mr Netanyahu’s office cited “technical reasons” for the failure to inform the foreign ministry, but that only increased Mr Lieberman’s rage. “The prime minister’s office should have considered and dealt with this matter differently, or at the very least consulted,” he said in a live radio interview.

He cited a long list of people who knew about the meeting when he didn’t, including American officials and his arch-rival Ehud Barak – the defence minister and Labour party leader.

But Mr Lieberman stopped short of threatening to resign – a move that would bring down the government.

“We have no thoughts of quitting. We won’t give anyone that pleasure,” he said.

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