Turkey and Israel hold first talks since flotilla raid

Ahmet Davutoglu (left) shakes hands with Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (23 November 2009) Ahmet Davutoglu and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer have held talks in the past

Israel and Turkey have held their first high-level meeting since the row over the killing of Turkish activists on an aid ship bound for Gaza, officials say.

Israeli Trade Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer held secret talks with Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, reportedly in Brussels on Wednesday.

Turkey later confirmed the meeting but said nothing substantial was agreed.

Ankara curtailed diplomatic relations with Israel in May, after the naval raid in which nine Turks were killed.

Start Quote

This is an insult to the norms of accepted behaviour and a heavy blow to the confidence between the foreign minister and the prime minister”

End Quote Avigdor Lieberman Israeli Foreign Minister

The country, which had been Israel's most important Muslim ally, has demanded an apology and compensation for the victims' families.

Israel has refused, saying its commandos acted in self-defence after being attacked by a group of passengers on the ship, which was part of a flotilla trying to break its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, the ship's cargo has begun to arrive in Gaza via land, starting with second-hand mobility scooters for the handicapped. The aid was impounded by the Israeli authorities after the raid.

'White House pressure'

News of the secret meeting between representatives of the former allies was broken on Wednesday evening by Israeli Channel 2 TV.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office subsequently confirmed the reports, saying: "Minister Ben-Eliezer informed the prime minister of an offer by a Turkish figure to hold an unofficial meeting.

Analysis

Jonathan Head

The wave of public anger in Turkey against the deaths of its citizens has died down. Parts of Turkish society, including some in the governing AK Party, are very hostile to Israel, but some critics have accused the government of using inflammatory language and causing unnecessary damage to bilateral relations. Turkish officials have repeatedly stated that they do not want to see the relationship with Israel destroyed.

Turkish officials say Wednesday's meeting was held at Israel's request, and that nothing substantial was agreed. Mr Davutoglu is said to have repeated his country's demands for an apology, compensation and an independent inquiry.

Ankara is considering other retaliatory measures, most related to the extensive military co-operation between the two countries. But existing contracts are unlikely to be affected. The Turkish military also relies on Israeli spare parts and technical expertise for its equipment.

"The prime minister saw nothing to prevent such a meeting, as in recent weeks there have been various initiatives for contacts with Turkey."

A senior Israeli source told the Haaretz newspaper that the White House had pushed for a meeting and co-ordinated its details with both parties.

President Barack Obama met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the recent G20 summit in Toronto, and will hold talks with Mr Netanyahu in Washington on Tuesday.

Mr Ben-Eliezer is the most pro-Turkish member of the Israeli cabinet and, unlike his colleagues, he openly supported a call by the UN for an international inquiry into last month's raid. Israel has agreed only to an internal investigation involving two foreign observers.

Turkish officials said nothing substantial was agreed during the meeting and that their demand for an apology from Israel, compensation for the victims of the raid and an international inquiry were not met.

But they said Turkey's goal was still to rebuild relations with Israel.

There were conflicting reports about who requested Wednesday's meeting. An Israeli spokesman told the BBC that Turkey had initiated contact, while Turkish officials told the AFP news agency Israel had.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was not aware the secret talks had taken place until they were reported by the media and he later accused Mr Netanyahu of undermining his authority.

"The foreign minister takes a very serious view of the fact that this occurred without informing the ministry of foreign affairs," he said in a statement.

Pro-Palestinian protests in Ankara, 6 June 2010 There were large-scale Turkish protests against Israel's naval raid

"This is 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 blamed "technical reasons" for the failure.

Correspondents say Mr Lieberman's hardline approach to Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs has made him unpopular abroad. In the past, other ministers have been sent in his place to diplomatic meetings.

Last month, Turkey barred two Israeli military flights from using Turkish airspace, but it says it will examine further requests from Israel on a case-by-case basis. Civilian flights remain unaffected.

The BBC's Jonathan Head in Istanbul said that after a month of angry exchanges between the Israeli and Turkish governments, Wednesday's meeting would be seen as an important step back from a complete break in relations.

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