CAIRO — The prime minister of Turkey, whose ties with Israel have been badly strained over the past year, has called on the Jewish state to remove its hawkish foreign minister who he says poses an obstacle to Middle East peace.
Avigdor Lieberman is a polarizing figure in Israel and outside, with his outspoken skepticism about peace with the Palestinians and his questioning of the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority.
He once said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell," has called for executing Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with Palestinian militant leaders and has advocated bombing Iran and Egypt and was even reprimanded this week by his own prime minister.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan called the Israeli minister "a problem at the head of Israel" in an interview broadcast on Al-Jazeera Wednesday night.
"Israelis must rid themselves (of Avigdor Lieberman) and that is surely their duty and not ours," he told the network.
Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Silvan Shalom rejected that, noting that Lieberman was democratically elected and calling Erdogan's remark "inappropriate." Shalom said Israel wants to restore close ties with Turkey, but "unfortunately those statements are not helping us to narrow the gaps."
Israel and Turkey built strong military and economic ties over the past 15 years, and Turkey became Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world.
Relations between the two soured, however, with Turkey's government's increasingly vociferous criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. They hit an all-time low in May, when Israeli naval commandos killed nine activists from Turkey on board a Gaza-bound ship that tried to breach Israel's naval blockade.
Israeli commandos said they opened fire in self-defense after meeting what they called unexpected resistance when they boarded the ferry carrying aid supplies to Gaza.
Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv and Turkish leaders denounced Israel repeatedly over the raid. Turkey has made an Israeli apology and compensation for the victims' families a condition for improved ties.
"When the Israelis meet these conditions we will reassess the situation (to renew relations)," Erdogan told the network.
The unraveling of relations with Turkey elicited some of Lieberman's characteristically blunt talk.
He has likened Turkey to Iran on the eve of its 1979 Islamic Revolution, and said it was difficult to distinguish any difference between the anti-Israel "vitriol" of the two countries' leaders today.
He countered a Turkish demand for an Israeli apology for the raid with his own demand that the Turkish government apologize to Israel instead for "supporting terror."
Erdogan wants Israel to end its blockade on the Gaza Strip. Israel and Egypt blockaded Gaza after the militant Islamic Hamas seized control there in 2007.
"Netanyahu's government is the worst or the least fortunate in the history of Israel," Erdogan added in the interview.