That was then: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a constructive relationship--until Israel's assault on Gaza in December 2008, an assault Turkey roundly criticized. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has never been known as a very polite man. He proved it Monday when he had his deputy, Danny Ayalon, summon Turkish ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol for a public dressing down. With the television cameras rolling, Ayalon told reporters, in Hebrew: "Pay attention that he is sitting in a lower chair and we are in the higher ones, that there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling."
You expect behavior like that from juvenile delinquents playing bully in back alleys. You don't expect it from the foreign ministry of a sovereign nation, even one with a CV rich in bullying. Turkey is Israel's only ally in the Islamic world and its closest friend in the Middle East (Turkey allows the Israeli air force to use its air space to spy on Syria and Lebanon, for example). Gratuitously and publicly insulting the Turkish ambassador (who called the incident the most shameful display he'd experienced in 35 years of diplomacy) isn't just crass. It's stupid.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compounded the stupidity today when he first attempted to deflect the outrage of the diplomatic insult by invoking an out-of-left-field non-sequitur ("Turkey is consistently gravitating eastward to Syria and Iran"), then explicitly had an aid defended the insult. "From the moment the incident occurred, the prime minister is fully backing the foreign minister," a source close to Netanyahu is quoted in Haaretz as saying.
How did all this get started? The Israeli government is upset over an episode in a Turkish television series that depicts the Israeli army as murderous and bloodthirsty. It's also upset over an episode from a "24"-like Turkish television series called "Valley of the Wolves" that, in one episode in 2007, featured agents from Mossad, the Israeli secret service, snatching babies. There's no question that television shows in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East use anti-Semitic themes as rating boosts. But if Arab foreign ministries summoned ambassadors every time Arabs were portrayed as little more than bloodthirsty terrorists on western, and particularly American (or Israeli) television, international diplomacy would come to a standstill over the backlog of parading ambassadors.
There was, of course, another reason for the Turkish ambassador's summons to the Israeli assistant principal's office. Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayip Erdogan, who'd been mediating a peace deal of sorts between Israel and Syria in 2008, has been embittered over Israel's assault on Gaza at the end of 2008, an assault he said derailed the peace deal. On Monday, Erdogan again accused Israel of using "disproportionate power ... while refusing to abide by UN resolutions" regarding Palestine and the Palestinians. Reflexively disproportionate in war, Netanyahu and Lieberman orchestrated the disproportionately rude diplomatic response by way of the Turkish ambassador in Israel.
Turkey wants an apology. Netanyahu isn't about to provide one. (He didn't: he delegated it.) Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister and the architect of the assault on Gaza, is due for a one-day visit to the Turkish capital next week. Erdogan says he won't meet with Barak. Turkey is threatening to withdraw its ambassador. And one of the few bright spots in Israeli relations within the Middle East is at risk of unraveling.
The Netanyahu government's behavior is beyond the pale, evidence of arrogance gone amok. One commenter in the pages of Haaretz put it this way: "Are they nuts? Are they determined to get Turkey supporting Hezbollah and Hamas? It's like something out of a political farce. Out of interest, what's all this about 'only saying in Hebrew' that you're deliberately humiliating the ambassador of your only Muslim ally? You don't think the Turkish ambassador to Israel or his translator might understand a little Hebrew? I have to say, I've never seriously worried about Israel having nukes, but with jokers like this in power, I'm revising that opinion fast."
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