ANKARA (AFP) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Turkey and Israel held secret talks to seek a way out of a deep crisis in bilateral ties since a deadly raid on Gaza-bound aid ships, officials said Thursday.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israeli Trade Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer met Wednesday in Brussels, where Davutoglu was on a visit to discuss his country’s EU membership bid.
The talks were agreed “upon a request by Israel,” Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Burak Ozugergin told AFP.
The United States, alarmed over the rift between its two main allies in the Middle East, was also involved in organising the meeting, media reports said.
It was the first meeting at 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, killing nine.
“The point our ties have reached is not one that we are happy with… The meeting provided an opportunity to convey in person the steps we expect so that relations can be repaired,” Ozugergin said.
Davutoglu told Ben Eliezer that Turkey expected Israel to apologise over the bloodshed, pay compensation to the victims’ families, agree to an international inquiry into the raid and end the blockade of Gaza, he said.
An official at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirmed that Ben Eliezer held talks Wednesday with “a Turkish official.”
The talks sparked tensions in Israel as it emerged that Netanyahu gave the go-ahead for the meeting without informing hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Turkey’s Hurriyet daily said “the ground for the secret talks was laid” last week when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with US President Barack Obama in Toronto. Ozugergin declined to comment on the report.
US assistant secretary of state Philip Gordon had said earlier that Washington was working to heal the Turkish-Israeli rift amid fears that Turkey, NATO’s sole mainly Muslim member, was sliding away from the West.
“These are two of our most important friends and partners in that part of the world and that?s why we?ve been so active in trying to calm these tensions and bring the two countries together in a more constructive way,” he told BBC television last month.
Eight Turks and a dual US-Turkish citizen were killed in the raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ferry.
Bilateral ties had been already strained since Israel’s devastating war on Gaza last year, which triggered vehement criticism from the Islamist-rooted government in Ankara.
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.
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.
“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 on condition of anonymity.
“Having another minister step in is one thing, but doing this without informing the foreign minister — that is really offensive,” he said.
In a statement late Wednesday, 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.”
Netanyahu’s office cited “technical reasons” for the coordination failure.
Turkey’s NTV news channel said the secret meeting was held in a hotel suite and lasted more than two hours.
It was kept secret also from Turkey’s chief EU negotiator Egemen Bagis and Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker, who were in Brussels with Davutoglu, it said.