An Israeli cabinet minister met with Ankara’s top diplomat in Brussels Wednesday, in the first high—level contact since Israel one month ago forcefully intercepted a flotilla headed for Gaza, a Turkish official confirmed Thursday.
Eight Turkish pro—Palestinian activists and an American of Turkish descent were killed in the May 31 assault in international waters.
The meeting between Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben—Eliezer and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was an attempt to salvage deeply damaged ties between the two countries.
“Davutoglu did have a meeting with Ben—Eliezer. It was the Israeli side that requested such a meeting in Brussels,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Burak Ozugergin told reporters in Ankara.
Ozugergin said the two talked about the current state of the relations and their future and that Davutoglu reminded Ben—Eliezer about Turkey’s conditions for normalization: An Israeli apology, compensation for the victims’ families, an international commission of inquiry into the incident, and the lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. He said Ben—Eliezer replied he would convey the message.
A spokesman for Ben—Eliezer in Israel, Asaf Azoulay, would not comment on the meeting, nor would the minister himself in a telephone conversation from Zurich with Israel’s Channel 2 television.
According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet, the meeting between the two ministers came at the behest of American President Barack Obama, who met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan this past Saturday in Toronto on the sidelines of the G—20 meeting.
Israeli media reported that the previously secret meeting was with the knowledge of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of the nationalist Likud party, and that it followed a Turkish request to Ben—Eliezer, of the left—to—centre coalition Labour Party.
The Labour Party has attempted to act as a foreign relations mediator and a nominal left—wing presence within Netanyahu’s otherwise right—wing and far—right coalition.
But the Israeli—Turkish meeting sparked a crisis of trust between Netanyahu and his largest coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra—nationalist Israel Beiteinu party, who was not informed.
Lieberman’s office said he viewed “very gravely” the failure to inform him, which it said “goes against all norms of proper government.” Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said “without going into details and without confirming who was in the meeting and where it was, the prime minister did know in advance of the meeting and due to a technical glitch the foreign ministry wasn’t notified as should be.” Lieberman however rejected Netanyahu’s explanation that he had not been informed because of a technical mishap as “implausible,” since many others, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak, also of the Labour Party, had been.
Lieberman, who lives in a settlement on the southern West Bank, has had difficulty fulfilling his duties as foreign minister because he has been unwelcome in some countries, most notably Egypt, and is regarded as an extremist by many others.
“There aren’t any thoughts of quitting (the government),” he nonetheless told Israel Radio, but demanded a full clarification and added “this cannot continue like this.” Relations between Israel and Turkey, which in the past cooperated on many levels including the military one, began heading downhill in the winter of 2008—2009, when Israel launched a deadly and devastating three—week offensive in Gaza in response to near daily rocket attacks from the coastal enclave at its southern communities.
Erdogan became an outspoken critic and accused Israel of war crimes.
Israel’s killing of nine civilian activists on board the Turkish Mavi Marmara vessel, as they were attempting to bring supplies to Gaza and run the Israeli blockade of the strip, prompted Ankara to recall its ambassador.
Israel says the activists wielded sticks and knives, injuring and threatening the lives of the naval commandoes who boarded the ship and were taken by surprise. Under heavy international pressure and following worldwide condemnation, it has since eased its Gaza blockade.