Israel's Lieberman tweaks Turkey. Is he flanking Netanyahu?

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticized Turkey in an apparent attempt to outflank Prime Minister Netanyahu on the right and pick up support from hardline nationalists disillusioned with the peace process.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters
Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman attends a party meeting at the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem today. Yesterday, Lieberman dismissed as "chutzpah" a Turkish offer to restore ties if Israel apologises for a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound ship, saying it was up to Ankara to make amends.

A recent attempt to mend Israel-Turkey ties appears to be on the rocks, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lobbying against apologizing to Ankara for the killing of nine Turkish citizens on the Gaza aid flotilla when they challenged Israel's naval blockade of the territory in May.

Lieberman on Sunday said Ankara's call for an apology was an example of "chutzpah'' and railed against Turkish leaders for spreading "lies'' about the Jewish state. On Monday he denounced the Turkish government for not condemning anti-Israel sentiment at a demonstration in Istanbul welcoming back the Mavi Marmara cruise ship on which the nine were killed.

The comment highlighted an open foreign policy clash between Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sought to repair relations after Turkey came to Israel's aid earlier this month in dousing the largest forest fire in its history.

Shortly afterward, the two sides began discussing an Israeli expression of contrition in exchange for the return to Israel of the Turkish ambassador. Mr. Netanyahu distanced himself from Lieberman, but that didn't improve the outlook for the bilateral talks.

"It's dead. The prime minister and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak are trying to keep the talks alive, but Lieberman is trying to torpedo them all the time,'' says Alon Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general and diplomat in Turkey. "He is trying to make sure that we completely disconnect from the region. It's a whole philosophy that stems from the fact that he knows there will be no progress in the peace process. It looks more like kickboxing than diplomacy.''

Though close allies in the 1990s, Israel and Turkey became estranged following Israel's three and a half week offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip from 2008 to 2009. The relationship touched a new low after Israel's navy boarded the Mavi Marmara and killed eight Turkish and one Turkish American passengers protesting the blockade on Gaza. On Sunday, thousands gathered in Istanbul waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and chanting "God is great'' to welcome the Turkish ship home.

Lieberman for prime minister?

Political observers in Israel believe Lieberman's comments reflect an attempt to outflank Netanyahu on the right and one day run for prime minister. Netanyahu's spokesman said that the foreign minister's remarks on Sunday reflected Lieberman's personal opinions rather than official Israeli policy.

Even though friction is common in Israel between prime ministers and foreign ministers, the two seem more publicly at odds over policy than usual.

In his speech to the Israeli diplomatic corps on Sunday, Lieberman revisited the harsh criticism of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians that he aired at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Lieberman assailed Netanyahu's stated goal of reaching a final treaty with the Palestinians by next year and belittled the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as an illegitimate government not capable of being a party to a peace treaty. He also said that he is working on an alternative peace initiative based on a long-term interim agreement.

"In one speech, which many found to be delusional, Lieberman said what many people in Israel think quietly – and so earned support for his opinions and his party,'' wrote Eitan Haber, in a column for the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "Lieberman considerably embarrassed the prime minister – one might even say humiliated him – made him look like an empty vessel,'' he continued.

On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticized Lieberman's speech, arguing that Israel needs to find a way to put the clash with Turkey in the past.

The Israeli foreign minister is hoping to reach out to hardliners disillusioned with Netanyahu for supporting a two state solution and a for a short time a moratorium on settlement expansion in the West Bank. Reports that Netanyahu was mulling a reconciliation deal with Turkey also kicked up domestic criticism.

"Netanyahu is seen by Israelis as moving a lot more to the political center by embracing a Palestinan state and freezing construction, which was taken by Israelis as very serious steps away from his right wing background," says Gil Hoffman, a political columnist for the Jerusalem Post. "Lieberman is still loyal. And out of all the politicians to the right of Netanyahu, he's the most popular."

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