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.
A diplomatic spat is threatening to worsen Israelâs 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 Turkeyâs regional standing has increasingly spoken out against Israel.
This latest crisis included a showdown at Israelâs Foreign Ministry, where Turkeyâs ambassador was summoned to explain Mr. Erdoganâs 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.
âThe message was, âWeâve had enough,ââ says Ephraim Inbar, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Israelâs Bar-Ilan University. âErdogan 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 weâre not going to take it anymore.â
A ploy to derail Barak's fence-mending visit?
But thereâs also reported disagreement among Israelâs upper echelons as to how to deal with Turkey, and this spat could have been timed to interfere with Defense Minister Ehud Barakâs 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.
âWe get the sense that Lieberman wants to heat things up before Barakâs visit,â a senior Foreign Ministry source told Haaretz. âAll of the recent activities were part of Liebermanâs political agenda.â
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.
âEven if Barakâs 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,â he says. âI think weâre 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 doesnât suggest there will be a thaw in the relations any time soon.â
Dr. Inbar of Bar-Ilan University insists that the problem is not with Turkey, but its leader. âWe want good relations with Turkey and want to maintain those good relations,â he says. âIt wasnât against Turkey, but against Erdogan.â
Erdoganâs 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 Iranâs possible quest for nuclear weapons while they say nothing about Israelâs nuclear arsenal.
During a Monday press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Erdogan again laid into Israel.
â[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,â he said.
In a statement released soon after, Israelâs Foreign Ministry condemned Erdoganâs âunbridled tongue-lashing.â
âIsrael has the full right to defend its citizens from terror and missile attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah,â the ministry said in a statement. âIsrael is sensitive to Turkeyâs honor and seeks good bilateral ties, but we expect reciprocity,â the statement also said.