Two senior members of the Turkish and Israeli cabinet secretly met on Tuesday in Brussels to discuss how to mend the frayed relations between the old allies after Israel attacked an aid flotilla in international waters last month; the move is certainly expected to be used as a stick with which to beat the governments in both countries.
Both Turkish and Israeli sources confirmed that a meeting was held between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a Knesset member from the Labor party who is known for his critical view of the Israeli action and is an advocate of closer ties with Turkey. Though Israeli sources claimed the meeting was held in Zurich, Turkish sources said the meeting was arranged in Brussels where the Turkish foreign minister was heading a delegation to an intergovernmental conference with the European Union.
According to information obtained by Today's Zaman, the meeting was arranged in a suite rented under an assumed name at the Crowne Plaza hotel near the EU Commission building. The undersecretary at the Foreign Ministry, 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.
Sinirlioğlu, a former Turkish envoy to Israel, is known for his involvement in secret talks during the Turkish-brokered mediation efforts between Israel and Syria as well as in secret talks with Armenian officials under Swiss mediation. Reports of the meeting have a potential to create a huge credibility problem for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The opposition is expected to raise the issue in Parliament and use the meeting to drum up public support against the government.
It had 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 government's office confirmed 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 foreign minister was not informed only for technical reasons.
During the meeting, it was reported that Davutoğlu had stressed Turkey's demands for an official apology and compensation for the victims of the attack. He lambasted Israel in the press briefing at the EU Commission building later in the day, saying the incident is not between Turkey and Israel but it is between Israel and the international community, and more specifically with 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.
Egemen Bağış, Turkey's chief EU negotiator and state minister who was in Brussels during the secret meeting, declined to comment on reports, saying he had no such knowledge.
Ben-Eliezer is no foreigner to Turkey
Ben-Eliezer is a veteran politician and known to have friendly ties with Turkey. He recently quarreled with Lieberman whom he accused for the deteriorating relations with Turkey. Ben-Eliezer was the first senior official to pay a visit to Turkey following the strained relations caused by a deadly offensive in Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 and met high-ranking officials, including a 90-minute meeting with Turkish President Abdullah Gül.
At the end of his trip to Turkey, Ben-Eliezer told a group of reporters on Tuesday that a breakthrough was needed in what he called the sometimes cloudy relations between the two countries. "If we are able to arrange a meeting between both prime ministers alone, without any interference, let them sit and discuss it, you will see that white smoke will appear very quickly," he said, signaling that an understanding would be rapidly reached.
Ben-Eliezer is no foreigner to secret meetings. He had suggested during a visit to Ankara in November last year that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu meet secretly with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, describing both leaders as "young and very emotional."
He said back then that a summit between the presidents of both countries could then proceed on the success of the prime ministers' meeting. "A breakthrough is a must. We want people on the leadership level to come and visit Israel because time is not in our favor, nor is it in the Palestinians or the Middle East's [favor]," he said, pointing out that a nuclear Iran will radically change the balance of power in the region.