By Patrick Moser, AFP – 12 Jan 2009
JERUSALEM – Israeli newspapers on Tuesday played up what they called the “hazing” of Turkey’s ambassador by Israel, in an incident likely to ratchet up already high tensions between the two allies.
Press reports highlighted the fact that Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon made Ambassador Ahmet Celikkol sit on a low couch while the Israelis sat on high chairs, as he reprimanded the envoy over a Turkish television thriller which portrays Israeli Mossad agents as baby-snatchers.
The incident mirrored the deterioration in ties since Israel’s devastating offensive in Gaza one year ago, which stirred blunt criticism from Turkey, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan again lashing out at Israel on Monday.
But it also came ahead of a planned visit to Turkey by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday.
Barak, who heads the centre-left Labour party, is scheduled to hold talks with his counterpart Vecdi Gonul, President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an official in his office said.
“We give this visit much importance. The ties between the two countries are important and they must be maintained even if there are ups and downs,” the official told AFP.
Haaretz newspaper said Barak was keen to mend relations with Turkey but that ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sought to torpedo those attempts.
Rather than summoning Celikkol to the ministry as is the norm, Ayalon saw him in his parliamentary office after making him wait in the corridor and telling staff to remove the Turkish flag and refreshments from the table.
“The important thing is that people see that he’s sitting low down and we’re high and that there is one flag,” Israeli television aired Ayalon as telling invited photographers and camera crews.
Israeli dailies all splashed the story on the front page, with Maariv headlining: “The ambassador gets a hazing” above a picture showing the Turkish envoy sitting much lower than Ayalon and looking uncomfortable.
Israel had already issued a protest in October when another Turkish series showed Israeli soldiers shooting young Palestinian children in cold blood.
On Monday, the foreign ministry objected to the broadcasting of the TV show, “Valley of the Wolves,” which it said showed “Israel and Jews as baby-snatchers and war criminals.”
The reaction of Pana, the makers of the Turkish series, did little to ease the tension.
“Why does the Israeli administration, which does not hesitate to bomb children seeking refuge under the UN flag, feel so uneasy about the real facts related in Valley of the Wolves?” it asked.
Maariv said the Israeli response was way overdue.
“The hazing that the deputy foreign minister carried out yesterday was the right thing, but not at the right time. We should have done this a few months ago.”
In Ankara, the Turkish foreign ministry planned to issue a statement later on Tuesday, as an official at the ministry acknowledged “relations with Israel are passing through a delicate period.”
Turkey has been Israel’s main regional ally since 1998 when the secular Muslim country and the Jewish state signed a military cooperation deal.
Relations took a sharp turn for the worse when Turkey responded angrily to Israel’s devastating Gaza offensive.
In a memorable outburst, Erdogan stormed out of a debate at the World Economic Forum, accusing Israel of “barbarian” acts and telling its President Shimon Peres, sitting next to him, that “you know well how to kill people.”
In October, Turkey excluded Israel from joint military drills and said that bilateral ties would continue to suffer unless Israel ends “the humanitarian tragedy” in Gaza.
But in December, Peres and his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul met in a bid to heal the rift.