Report: Obama pressured Israel and Turkey to hold secret talks

A senior Israeli official's secret meeting with the Turkish foreign minister in Switzerland was apparently held due to pressure from the Obama administration, sources in Jerusalem said Thursday.

The White House prompted and coordinated the meeting between Israeli Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the source confirmed in response to a report in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.

The meeting was held Wednesday without permission from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who reacted furiously to the news that such talks were held without his knowledge or consent.

Associates of Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he had opposed the meeting and told Prime Minister Netanyahu as much, though ultimately decided not to veto the matter.

The defense minister had declined advice to hold his own meeting with the Turkish envoy to the U.S. or even Davutoglu during his recent visit to Washington, the associates added.

Davutoglu took off for Zurich on a private plane to maintain the clandestine nature of the talks, Hurriyet reported on Thursday, and the conference room was booked under a fake name.

During their two-hour meeting, Davutoglu reportedly reiterated Turkey's demand that Israel apologize for its May 31 raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla that left nine Turkish activists dead.

After learning about the meeting, Lieberman warned that the move had damaged his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The foreign minister takes a very serious view of the fact that this occurred without informing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," Lieberman's office said in a statement immediately following the report. "This is an insult to the norms of accepted behavior and a heavy blow to the confidence between the foreign minister and the prime minister."

Lieberman on Thursday rejected Netanyahu's bid to meet, though denied speculations that his Yisrael Beiteinu party was planning to leave the coalition over the matter.

"The system of considerations here must be different… this is a big, strong and stable coalition… this is the time to think big and not just about what the headline will be in the newspaper on Friday."

The foreign minister said his response could not be considered an unwarranted "outburst", telling Israel Radio: "The Prime Minister's Bureau should have considered and dealt with this matter differently, or at the very least consulted [with me]."

"Suddenly we discover that the defense minister and other senior officials were in on the matter and that the whole process was coordinated with the U.S.," he said. "When you heard all these details and every half an hour there are more details, it becomes completely unreasonable."

Ben-Eliezer, a Knesset member of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Labor party, has over the past few weeks expressed concern over Israel's deteriorating relationswith Turkey. Ties between the once-close allies have come close to breakdown following a deadly raid by Israeli commandos on a Turkish-flagged aid ship a month ago.

Wednesday's talks were apparently aimed at repairing the diplomatic damage.

Later on Wednesday, Netanyahu's office released a statement that cited technical grounds for the failure to inform Lieberman of the meeting in Zurich.

Turkish officials had approached Ben-Eliezer personally with a request for an informal discussion, which the prime minister had seen no cause to block, the statement said.

"In recent weeks there have been several attempts at contacts with Turkey of which the foreign ministry was aware," the statement said. "The foreign minister was not informed for technical reasons only. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working in full cooperation with the foreign minister and will clarify the incident with him."

Lieberman's hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party is the second largest in the government coalition, behind Netanyahu's Likud. But the foreign minister's right-wing views have made him unpalatable to many of Israel's allies and he has often taken a back seat internationally, leaving high-level diplomacy to Netanyahu and Barak.

Following Israel's May 31 raid, Ben-Eliezer broke with other ministers in demanding an international inquiry into the incident, in which nine pro-Palestinian activists with Turkish citizenship were killed.

Israel is conducting its own probe, led by a former Supreme Court judge and monitored by two international observers.



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