Israel issues second, stronger apology in diplomatic standoff with Turkey

Turkey reacted with fury this week after what it termed "humiliating" treatment of its ambassador to Israel by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Mr. Ayalon issued a second apology to head off a Turkish threat to recall its ambassador.

Gil Cohen Magen/REUTERS
An Israeli border police officer opens the front gate of Turkey's Embassy in Tel Aviv January 13, 2010. Turkey on Wednesday threatened to recall its ambassador to Israel unless it received a formal apology over his treatment, in a row that has made even frostier the chilly ties between Jewish state and Muslim regional power.

(updated at 4:30 pm Eastern Standard Time to show Turkey has accepted the apology.)

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon issued a second statement of regret over a breach of diplomatic protocol with the Turkish ambassador earlier this week that further threatened strained ties and spurred Ankara threaten to recall its ambassador, Oguz Celikko.

Late on Tuesday, Mr. Ayalon said, "it is not my way to disrespect ambassadors' honor, and in the future, I will clarify my position in a diplomatically acceptable manner."

He didn't say he was "sorry" or directly apologize, and Ankara said the response was unacceptable, setting the end of the day on Wednesday as a deadline for the delivery of a stronger statement of regret, and warning that if it didn't receive one, Mr. Celikko would return home.

The diplomatic tension between the Jewish state and one of its longest-standing majority-Muslim allies was sparked after Ayalon summoned Celikko to his office to complain about the popular Turkish television show Valley of the Wolves, which recently depicted Israeli agents operating inside Turkey and kidnapping Turkish babies. A day after the meeting, Ayalon explained his position on his Twitter feed: "The Turkish TV show about Jews kidnapping non-Jewish children proves that anti-Israelism is just repackaged antisemitism," he wrote.

But whatever the merits of his complaint, the meeting proved a diplomatic debacle, with Ayalon caught on Israeli TV telling cameramen: "Pay attention that he is sitting in a lower chair ... that there is only an Israeli flag on the table, and that we are not smiling." That prompted Turkish President Abdullah Gul to issue an ultimatum: Deliver an official apology or the ambassador would be withdrawn.

A 'clarification'

After Tuesday's delivery of what the Israeli Foreign Ministry termed a "clarification" by Ayalon, a member of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, the Ministry said no further statements would be forthcoming. But that changed on Wednesday. The English-language website for the Hebrew-language daily Yedioth Ahronoth wrote that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres demanded a stronger apology from Ayalon.

On Wednesday, in his second apology, Ayalon said: "I had no intention to humiliate you personally and apologize for the way the demarche was handled and perceived. Please convey this to the Turkish people, for whom we have great respect."

Israel's Haaretz newspaper speculated on Tuesday that Ayalon's action might have been a deliberate attempt to derail on upcoming visit of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, from the rival Labor Party, designed to improve currently rocky relations.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan said Tuesday that the apology was accepted and that the ambassador would not be recalled.

Though the two countries have longstanding ties, Turkey has been increasingly critical of Israel's actions in Gaza and the occupied territories, even as it has sought to increase diplomatic and trade ties with its Arab and Muslim neighbors. It has also sought to set itself up as a mediator between Israel and its Arab neighbors in land disputes.

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