'Turkey wants to be major ME player'

Turkey wants to be cent

Turkey is interested in once again becoming a "central player" in talks between both Israel and the Syrians and Israel and the Palestinians, Turkish President Abdullah Gul told Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in Ankara on Tuesday. Ben-Eliezer met with Gul a day after coming to Turkey, on the highest-level visit by an Israeli minister in recent months. He met soon after his arrival Monday with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said recently that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's harsh criticism of Israel since Operation Cast Lead precluded Turkey from once again mediating indirect talks between Israel and Syria. But Davutoglu said following his meeting with Ben-Eliezer that "the crisis is behind us," referring to the dramatic downturn in the ties between the two countries that reached a nadir last month when Turkey canceled Israel's participation in a joint military maneuver. "There has always been an open channel of communication between the two countries," he said, "so there is no need for a new beginning." Nevertheless, the Turkish leadership seemed to go out of its way to make Ben-Eliezer feel welcome, with the minister meeting the senior Turkish leadership, excepting Erdogan. Erdogan said earlier this month that he would rather meet Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted for genocide in Darfur, than Netanyahu. According to a statement put out by Ben-Eliezer's office, he stressed to Gul Israel's commitment to "real peace" and said that the largest problem facing Israel and the entire world was the Iranian problem, a sentiment - he said -shared by the leadership of the "moderate Arab world." Ben-Eliezer's words came even as Turkey and Iran have strengthened their bilateral relationship in recent months. Ben-Eliezer headed Israel's delegation Tuesday at the Israeli-Turkish joint economic committee meeting, where Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul characterized Israeli-Turkish economic cooperation as "important," and said ways needed to be found to widen the scope. Ben-Eliezer said that Turkish help in this matter was important and "proved the true friendship between the two countries." Erdogan complained on Monday that Israel had not lifted its blockade of the Gaza Strip despite international calls to do so. He also criticized Israel for not allowing Turkey to help with reconstruction efforts. Turkey, a predominantly Muslim but secular state, has long been one of Israel's closest allies in the Muslim world and mediated months of indirect talks between Israel and Syria last year. AP contributed to this report.