Two senior members of the Turkish and Israeli cabinets met secretly in Brussels on Wednesday when the former bluntly warned his counterpart that Ankara's indignation over Israel will lead to further retaliatory measures in all fields if Israel refuses, as it does now, to offer a formal apology and to compensate families of victims after its commandos killed eight Turks on an aid ship in international waters during a deadly raid on May 31.
As a sign of how harsh these retaliatory measures can go, the Turkish side told the Israeli side that Turkey, which has already closed its airspace to some Israeli military flights since the raid, would expand this de facto ban on military flights to commercial flights as well.
During the meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Israeli Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of the Knesset from the Labor Party who is known for his critical view of the Israeli action and is an advocate of closer ties with Turkey, Davutoğlu's wording was as clear and sharp as it has been when he publicly criticized Israel, diplomatic sources said.
Davutoğlu once more underlined Turkey's demands for an official apology and compensation for the victims of the attack. He lambasted Israel in the press briefing at the European Commission later in the day, saying the incident is not a matter between Turkey and Israel but is a matter between Israel and the international community, more specifically the EU. "Citizens from 32 countries joined in this flotilla and Israel killed nine of them," he said, repeating his call for an international inquiry.
The request to hold such a meeting was conveyed by the Israeli side a while ago, after Israeli commandos killed one US national and eight Turkish peace activists when they boarded the Mavi Marmara, part of a six-vessel convoy that set out to challenge the blockade of Gaza. The bloodshed triggered an international outcry and further damaged Israel's already strained ties with Turkey. Israel eventually decided to send Ben-Eliezer to this meeting after Turkey made clear that it wants to talk to a reasonable figure who could clearly convey its messages to Tel Aviv.
Confirming the meeting between Davutoğlu and Ben-Eliezer in Brussels and noting that holding such a meeting was Israel's request, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Burak Özügergin told reporters that Turkey reiterated its clear demands from Israel during the meeting.
"We have stressed our demands for offering an apology; paying compensation; establishment an international, independent and impartial commission [to probe the raid] and lifting the embargo on Gaza," Özügergin said upon his arrival in Ankara from Brussels, where he accompanied Davutoğlu.
At the end of the meeting, the Israeli side pledged to convey these demands to its government for assessment, the spokesperson said.
"As you know, the point at which the relations arrived is a point which we did not want to be at either. The reason behind the fact that the request for the meeting came from the other side is presumably the intention to re-evaluate the steps which we expect to be taken in the upcoming period and to share this re-evaluation within the [Israeli coalition] government," Özügergin said when asked how the upcoming process would function.
According to information obtained by Today's Zaman, the meeting was arranged in a suite booked under an assumed name at the Crowne Plaza hotel near the European Commission. Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu was also present at the meeting. Sinirlioğlu was later seen attending a press briefing held by Turkish and EU ministers on the occasion of the opening of a new chapter in EU negotiations.
The Brussels meeting has already triggered a major rift in the coalition government in Israel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reacted furiously on Wednesday to reports that Ben-Eliezer had held a secret meeting with the Turkish foreign minister without his prior knowledge. He said the way the meeting had been arranged had damaged his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and undermined his authority.
"The foreign minister takes a very serious view of the fact view that this occurred without informing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," Lieberman's office said in a statement. "This is an insult to the norms of accepted behavior and a heavy blow to the confidence between the foreign minister and the prime minister," it stressed.
The Israeli prime minister's office confirmed that the meeting took place and noted Ben-Eliezer had informed Netanyahu about overtures being made to him by a Turkish official regarding an informal meeting. "The prime minister saw no reason why the meeting should not be held, since over the last few weeks there were a number of initiatives for contacts with the Turks which the Foreign Ministry knew about," the statement read. It also added that the failure to inform the Israeli foreign minister about the meeting was due to technical reasons.
"As a matter of fact Turkey is not categorically allergic to holding talks with Israel and the meeting should not have been held secretly either. It was not our particular preference to hold the meeting secretly in the first place. The disarray within the Israeli coalition government led to the meeting being held the way it was," Turkish government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Today's Zaman. "The statement by Netanyahu's office actually indicates that such arrangement stemmed from an obvious need," the same officials added, without further elaborating.
Soon after the attack Ankara said Israel will have to "bear the consequences" of its lethal attack and stated that Israel must make amends to be forgiven for the assault on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla, including apologizing for the attack and paying compensation. The attack brought the already strained relationship between the Jewish state and Turkey close to the breaking point.
"An apology is Israel's exit if it really wants to normalize relations with Turkey, and we are firm in our demand for an apology," a senior Turkish diplomat said recently, noting that Turkey is not willing to completely sever its relations with Israel. "Destroying such ties is easier than establishing them. But we are ready to face the negative impact of cutting these ties in an eventual absence of an apology from the Israeli side."
Aware of Turkey's firm stance and anger over the issue, Washington is not eager to see two of its key allies in the region end their cooperation. US officials have been exerting efforts to persuade Israel to offer an apology to Turkey, Today's Zaman learned from diplomatic sources.
Ben-Eliezer's meeting with Davutoğlu was apparently held due to pressure from the Obama administration, leading Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Thursday. Haaretz cited a senior source in Jerusalem as saying on Thursday that the White House prompted the meeting and coordinated its details with both parties.