JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s foreign minister called Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan an “anti-Semitic bully” in a meeting with Israeli ambassadors on Wednesday and said Europe was being cowardly in not taking him on.
In an address to Israeli envoys based in Europe and Asia, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of far-right party Yisrael Beitenu, was withering about Erdogan, a staunch critic of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.
“Civilized, politically correct Europe’s silence over an anti-Semitic, neighborhood bully like Erdogan and his gang takes us back to the 1930s,” said Lieberman, referring to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany.
“We have to tell the truth and speak plainly, put it on the table,” he said.
A former nightclub bouncer who was born in Moldova and migrated to Israel in the 1970s, Lieberman was also critical of Europe’s reaction to last week’s Islamist attacks in Paris, saying the anti-Semitic nature of them had been played down.
“In the world and in Europe, most of the discussion was about freedom of expression, extremism and Islamophobia,” he said of the fallout from the attacks that killed 17 people, including four French Jews at a kosher supermarket.
“But the Jewish and anti-Semitic aspects were hardly mentioned and this is particularly grave.”
Relations between Israel and Turkey have declined markedly over the past five years, since Israeli forces stormed a Turkish ship, the Mavi Mamara, as it sailed towards Gaza as part of a flotilla challenging Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas Islamist-ruled Palestinian enclave in 2010.
Nine Turkish activists were killed on board in confrontations with the troops.
Erdogan was highly critical of Israel during his time as prime minister and again since becoming president last year.
During the war in Gaza last summer, the Turkish leader told a political rally: “(Israelis) have no conscience, no honor, no pride. Those who condemn Hitler day and night have surpassed Hitler in barbarism.”
He also cautioned supporters against taking their anger out on Turkey’s Jewish population, which numbers around 17,000.
Lieberman, who has broken off his alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has stepped up his rhetoric on a range of issues in recent days as he tries to rally support for his party ahead of parliamentary elections on March 17.
Netanyahu lashed out at Erdogan’s suggestion Israel did not merit a role in Sunday’s marches in Paris because of the Gaza war, which Israel says was intended to stop Palestinian rocket fire at its towns and cities.
“I’ve yet to hear any world leader condemn the comments by Erdogan, not one,” Netanyahu told a group of U.S. lobbyists for Israel.
“I believe his shameful remarks must be repudiated by the international community, because the war against terror will only succeed if it’s guided by moral clarity.”
(This story has been refiled to add dropped letter in pentultimate paragraph)
Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Ralph Boulton