Israeli coalition hit by secret Turkish meetings

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 8, 2010
Hamas Navy officers in Gaza hold a ceremony to honour the Turks killed aboard the aid flotilla last month

Hamas Navy officers in Gaza hold a ceremony to honour the Turks killed aboard the aid flotilla last month

A meeting between Israeli and Turkish ministers last week, intended to be secret, seems to have done nothing to improve the countries' rocky relations, instead causing at least two crises within Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition.

Trade and Industry Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has close ties with politicians in many Muslim countries and has undertaken delicate diplomatic missions in the past. Following the breakdown of Israel's relationship with the Erdogan administration after the Gaza flotilla incident last month, Mr Ben-Eliezer tried to use back channels to mend fences.

Last Wednesday, he secretly met Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels.

The meeting did not yield any result. The Ankara government is still insistent that in order to improve relations, Israel must issue an apology, compensate the families of the nine dead activists and co-operate with an international commission of enquiry. Israel has steadfastly turned down these demands.

This week, the Turks turned the crisis up a notch when Mr Davutoglu threatened in a briefing to the Turkish press to break off diplomatic relations altogether if Israel does not accept.

Lieberman refused to take Bibi’s calls

Meanwhile, the meeting, which had been personally authorised by Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu, leaked to the Israeli media. It turned out that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had not been informed in advance. Left to discover the existence of a high-level diplomatic encounter from the press, Mr Lieberman issued a statement saying that his omission "was a serious mistake by the Prime Minister".

The Prime Minister's Office explained that Mr Lieberman had not been updated due to "a technical glitch".

Mr Netanyahu tried to placate his foreign minister over the phone but for an entire day, Mr Lieberman failed to answer his calls, blaming "a technical glitch". Only on Friday did he deign to meet the prime minister, announcing after the meeting that "the matter has been resolved".

"Lieberman is worried that too many things are going on behind his back - diplomatic developments, changes in the coalition, more investigations into his financial matters," said a Likud Knesset member. "He is getting jumpy and he tried to send a warning to Netanyahu that he can also act independently."

Some coalition insiders believe that Mr Lieberman is looking for the right moment to leave the coalition, preferably on a matter of ideological principle and before the Attorney General decides to press charges against him on allegations of money-laundering. He still hopes to be the next leader of the right wing, supplanting Mr Netanyahu.

The Brussels meeting has also caused major friction within Labour, as the party leader, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, was also against the meeting (though he knew about it in advance).

A public remark by Mr Barak that "I would not have done it myself" led to an angry encounter behind closed doors between Mr Barak and Mr Ben-Eliezer.

Mr Ben-Eliezer used to be one of Mr Barak's main supporters within the party. The current estrangement between the two is another indicator of the growing isolation of Mr Barak within Labour and of the rising prospect that a majority of its Knesset members will vote in favour of leaving the coalition.

Last updated: 2:51pm, July 8 2010