Crisis after Israel 'humiliates' Turkey

By Anshel Pfeffer and Sami Kohen, January 14, 2010

Relations between Israel and Turkey hit an all-time low this week after Israel’s deputy foreign minister publicly humiliated the Turkish ambassador in Jerusalem.

Turkey threatened to order its ambassador home and the matter was only resolved after Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon personally apologised, twice.

The row broke out on Monday when Mr Ayalon called in Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol to rebuke him over the second drama series to be broadcast on Turkish television recently showing Israeli agents murdering civilians.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had wanted to recall Israel’s ambassador to Ankara in protest but PM Binyamin Netanyahu authorised only a reprimand instead.

Mr Ayalon summoned the ambassador to his Knesset office and, unprecedentedly, alerted TV crews to attend. He told the reporters that he intended to seat the Turkish ambassador in a lower chair than the Israelis, and told them to note that there was only an Israeli flag on the table between them.

The humiliating ceremony was reported widely in Turkey and across the Arab world.

Mr Ayalon issued two private apologies to the ambassador and his boss, Mr Lieberman, tried to calm matters with a statement saying that Israel does not want a diplomatic confrontation with Turkey.

But sources in the Foreign Ministry accused Mr Lieberman of having political motives. His main rival in the cabinet, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, is due to visit Ankara on Sunday in an attempt to improve relations with Turkey.

“Lieberman doesn’t want Barak to succeed when he has been advocating a much more aggressive stance towards Ankara,” said one diplomat.

A senior IDF officer who used to enjoy close ties with his Turkish counterparts said that “in the last few weeks, we saw the beginning of a thaw, with more unofficial talks between the two armies and now Lieberman has gone and ruined it again”.

The stunt enraged Turks as Turkey’s self-confidence as an emerging regional power has recently soared.

Middle East expert Cengiz Candar said that Ankara’s success in gaining influence in the region has led the government to believe it can afford to follow a more assertive attitude towards Israel, and that Israel now needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Israel.

“Who will be the loser in the current crisis over the ambassador? Whoever is weaker and isolated. That is Israel. And who feels stronger? The one whose role and influence in the region and in the world is increasing. That is Turkey.”

He added that even though the current crisis seems to be resolved, “Israeli-Turkish relations will not be the same as they were in recent years and moreover Turkish public opinion will not easily forget that humiliating picture” of their ambassador on a lower chair than Deputy Minister Ayalon.

Last updated: 4:35pm, January 14 2010