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Netanyahu meets foreign minister to smooth rift

The Israeli prime minister meets his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman to mend ties after sidelining him in secret Israel-Turkey talks.

Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the podium as he completes a statement in his Jerusalem offices on Thursday, July 1, 2010.
Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the podium as he completes a statement in his Jerusalem offices on Thursday, July 1, 2010.

JERUSALEM // Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting his hard line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, today in a bid to mend ties after sidelining him in talks aimed at ending a crisis with Turkey. Israeli trade minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer and the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu met on Wednesday in Brussels for secret talks seeking a way out of the feud sparked by a deadly raid on Gaza-bound aid ships.

The talks sparked tensions in Israel as it emerged that Netanyahu gave the go-ahead for the meeting without informing Mr Lieberman. 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, meanwhile, said the omission was a technical misunderstanding and tried to downplay the significance of the meeting with Mr Lieberman, saying today that it had been scheduled "a week before and not just to deal with this incident."

But commentators said Mr Netanyahu had no choice but to bypass the tough-talking Mr Lieberman. "It is no coincidence that Ben Eliezer, not the foreign minister, was sent to try mend the severe crisis in Israel's relations with Turkey," Haaretz newspaper said in its editorial. "Clearly the foreign minister, who contributed to the escalation of the crisis, cannot be the man to calm it," Haaretz said, noting Ankara had been boycotting Mr Lieberman, who engineered a public humiliation of the Turkish ambassador.

On Thursday, Mr Lieberman said he would not pull out of the government over the incident, but aides said the insult could change his relationship with Mr Netanyahu. "Relations between Netanyahu and Lieberman have been harmed irrevocably," the Jerusalem Post quoted officials close to Lieberman as saying. "The scope of Lieberman's humiliation will be commensurate with the size of his revenge," the official said. "Lieberman does not easily forgive and his revenge will be cold and calculated, not impulsive."

The Israel-Turkey talks were the first ministerial meeting since ties between the once-close allies plunged into deep crisis on May 31 when Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship leading an activist aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip, killing nine. Ankara recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and cancelled three planned joint military exercises after the raid. It also twice denied permission to Israeli military aircraft to use its air space.

Bilateral relations had already been strained since Israel's devastating war on Gaza last year, which triggered vehement criticism from the Islamist-rooted government in Ankara. Ben Eliezer is known as an advocate of good ties with Turkey. He was the first Israeli minister to visit Ankara last year, after the Gaza war began to poison ties. Turkish-Israeli ties had flourished for years after the two countries signed a military cooperation accord in 1996.

*AFP