Secret talks with Turkey backfire on Netanyahu

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Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's firebrand Foreign minister, took to the airwaves in anger yesterday after learning second-hand of secret talks between Israeli and Turkish officials aimed at smoothing over a recent diplomatic row.

The clandestine talks between the Israeli Trade minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, and Turkey's Foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, appeared to achieve little but plunge Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, into a fresh domestic crisis after Mr Lieberman learnt of the talks from Israeli television.

Within hours, Mr Lieberman's fury was apparent. In a statement released on Wednesday, he said it was "extremely serious... that this was done without notifying the Foreign Ministry. This goes against all norms of government and does serious harm to the trust between the Foreign minister and the Prime Minister."

Mr Netanyahu's office said the failure to notify the Foreign Ministry was a "technical" oversight, but the row is likely to weaken further the Prime Minister's fragile right-wing coalition.

By lunchtime yesterday, the rift appeared to be widening after Mr Lieberman learnt that Barack Obama had instigated the secret talks and that Israeli Defence minister Ehud Barak also knew of them. "Suddenly we discover that the Defence minister... [was] briefed on the matter and that the whole process was coordinated with the US," Mr Lieberman told Israel Radio. "When you learn all these details, and every half-hour there are more details, it becomes completely unreasonable."

Despite repeated phone calls from Mr Netanyahu through the day, Mr Lieberman refused to answer, according to Israeli media reports.

Turkey, Israel's closest ally in a region largely hostile to it, threatened to sever diplomatic relations last month after Israel's botched assault on a Gaza-bound flotilla ended in the death of nine Turkish nationals. Turkey has conditioned restoring ties on a full apology from Israel for the assault, the return of its ships and compensation for the victims.

Relations with Ankara were already strained after Turkey condemned Israel's Gaza offensive in December 2008, a devastating military assault that killed up to 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

Mr Lieberman, who recently stated that Turkey was of "no importance", has played a significant role in dictating the path of Israeli-Turkish relations. Earlier this year, he commanded his deputy, Danny Ayalon, to publicly humiliate Turkey's ambassador to Israel after a Turkish TV show depicted Israeli soldiers in a brutal light. In a carefully choreographed meeting in front of journalists, Mr Ayalon invited the ambassador to sit in a lower chair, removed the Turkish flag from the table in breach of diplomatic protocol, and refused to shake hands.

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