Why Israel humiliated Turkey in response to a TV show

When Israeli officials summoned the Turkish ambassador over an anti-Israel TV show, they seated him in a lower chair and conspicuously failed to place Turkey's flag on the table. But at issue was much more than TV.

Gil Yohanan/AP
Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, left, meets with Turkish ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, right, in Jerusalem on Monday.

(Updates: Israel issues second, stronger apology to Turkey and Turkey threatens to recall its ambassador to Israel.)

A diplomatic spat is threatening to worsen Israel’s strained relations with Turkey, traditionally one of its most important allies in the region. The rift exposes growing Israeli frustration with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in a bid to increase Turkey’s regional standing has increasingly spoken out against Israel.

This latest crisis included a showdown at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, where Turkey’s ambassador was summoned to explain Mr. Erdogan’s recent harsh criticism, as well as a TV show that portrayed Israeli intelligence agents holding a woman and her baby hostage.

Breaking with diplomatic protocol, Israeli officials failed to include the customary Turkish flag on the table between them and the Turkish ambassador, whom they seated on a low couch. To rub it in, they instructed the press members in attendance to note that they were sitting in higher chairs and the usual diplomatic niceties were conspicuously absent.

“The message was, ‘We’ve had enough,’” says Ephraim Inbar, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. “Erdogan has taken things too far. It might have not been the best treatment for an ambassador, but it came from the gut. The signal is that we’re not going to take it anymore.”

A ploy to derail Barak's fence-mending visit?

But there’s also reported disagreement among Israel’s upper echelons as to how to deal with Turkey, and this spat could have been timed to interfere with Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s fence-mending visit to Turkey this weekend.

According to the center-left Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party, opposes the diplomatic efforts of Mr. Barak, who leads the left-leaning Labor party. The paper also reported that the treatment of Turkey's ambassador had been personally ordered by Lieberman.

“We get the sense that Lieberman wants to heat things up before Barak’s visit,” a senior Foreign Ministry source told Haaretz. “All of the recent activities were part of Lieberman’s political agenda.”

Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs columnist with Milliyet, a Turkish daily, says this latest spat calls into question just how much progress Barak could actually achieve.

“Even if Barak’s visit is successful, the question is still when the next eruption will be. I think the career diplomats on both sides are trying to control things, but there are loose cannons out there,” he says. “I think we’re going towards a split of some kind, because Erdogan seems fairly intent on keeping his position and there are people in Israel (who) seem intent on picking on his words and responding in kind. This doesn’t suggest there will be a thaw in the relations any time soon.”

Dr. Inbar of Bar-Ilan University insists that the problem is not with Turkey, but its leader. “We want good relations with Turkey and want to maintain those good relations,” he says. “It wasn’t against Turkey, but against Erdogan.”

'Unbridled tongue-lashing'

Erdogan’s criticism of Israel has been particularly vocal since the 2009 Gaza war. In recent months, Erdogan has also started chiding other countries for worrying about Iran’s possible quest for nuclear weapons while they say nothing about Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

During a Monday press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Erdogan again laid into Israel.

“[The Israelis] have disproportionate capabilities and power and they use them. ... They do not abide by UN resolutions. ... They say they will do what they like,” he said.

In a statement released soon after, Israel’s Foreign Ministry condemned Erdogan’s “unbridled tongue-lashing.”

“Israel has the full right to defend its citizens from terror and missile attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah,” the ministry said in a statement. “Israel is sensitive to Turkey’s honor and seeks good bilateral ties, but we expect reciprocity,” the statement also said.

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