Turkey and Israel hold secret talks to rebuild relations

The Turkish foreign minister and the Israeli trade minister met secretly to discuss ways of building ties following the crisis over the Gaza flotilla.

Turkish and Israeli ministers met secretly in Brussels to seek ways of mending fences amid a deep crisis over a deadly raid on Gaza-bound aid ships last month, officials said today. The Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the Israeli trade minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer met yesterday in Brussels, where Davutoglu was on a visit to discuss his country's EU membership bid, a Turkish official said.

The talks "took place yesterday in Brussels upon a request by Israel," he said on condition of anonymity. "We had already conveyed a note to Israel explaining our expectations from them... Those expectations were repeated at the meeting," he said. An official at the office of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that Ben Eliezer held talks Wednesday with "a Turkish official" but would not give other details.

It was the first meeting on a ministerial level since relations between the once-close allies plunged into deep crisis on May 31 when Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship leading an aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip. Eight Turks and a dual US-Turkish citizen were killed in the operation, which shattered bilateral ties, already strained since Israel's devastating war on Gaza last year The United States has expressed concern over the deteriorating ties between the two countries.

The secret talks had been "meticulously prepared" in conjunction with Washington and with the involvement of the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak, Israel's military radio said. Immediately after the raid, Ankara recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and cancelled three planned joint military exercises. It also denied permission twice to Israeli military aircraft to use its air space. Turkish officials have said Turkey expects Israel to apologise for the bloodshed, compensate the victims' families, agree to an international inquiry and release three Turkish vessels seized in the operation.

Ankara also wants the crippling blockade of Gaza to be lifted. 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 war on Gaza triggered vehement Turkish criticism. But yesterday's talks, which had been sanctioned by Mr Netanyahu, infuriated Israel's hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was not informed of the meeting.

"Ben Eliezer has always been a one-man Turkish lobby - he is someone they trust, with whom they have had long-standing ties, so it makes sense," an Israeli official said. "Having another minister step in is one thing, but doing this without informing the foreign minister -- that is really offensive." In a statement late yesterday, 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".

A statement from Netanyahu's office, however, said he had approved a request from Ben Eliezer to meet unofficially with a "Turkish personality" and the failure to coordinate with the foreign ministry had been due to "technical reasons." * AFP