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    Middle East
     Jan 16, 2010
Israel-Turkey ties hit a low point
By Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM - A bizarre diplomatic incident - even by the Byzantine-like standards of the old Near East - has threatened already strained relations between Israel and Turkey.

For a quarter century, the two democracies were the region's most unlikely allies. Since Israel's assault on Hamas in Gaza a year ago, they have been the most problematic allies.

On Monday, Israel created a scene reminiscent of a famous scene in Charlie Chaplin's movie The Great Dictator which Chaplin

parodies Adolf Hitler receiving Benito Mussolini. Each confronts the other by trying to elevate his seat - until they both hit the ceiling.

In a back room in the Israeli parliament, Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, deliberately embarrassed Oguz Celikkol, the Turkish ambassador, by making him sit on a low couch and removing the Turkish flag from the table in a meeting called to convey Israeli protests over a Turkish television series.

The top Israeli diplomat said in Hebrew to the Israeli cameramen who had been called in to record the humiliation: "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."

The Turkish TV series reflects increasingly negative coverage of Israel in the Turkish media. Last October, Israel complained about a series called Ayrilik (Separation), a love story set during Israel's Gaza war in which Israeli soldiers are shown killing Palestinian children gratuitously. An episode in a new show, Kurtlar Vadisi (Valley of the Wolves), showed Mossad agents kidnapping Turkish children.

Israel has also been riled by repeated criticism coming from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of its policy towards the Palestinians. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called some of the Turkish leader's comments "unbridled", and said that "Turkey was in no position to preach morality to Israel", a veiled reference to Turkish policy towards its Kurdish minority.

Just recently, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, agreed to amend relations, to make them "positive and stable". However, on Monday, at a joint press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Erdogan again lashed out at Israel, condemning its latest air strike in Gaza, saying, "What is your excuse this time?

"We can never remain silent in the face of Israel's attitude ... It has disproportionate power, and it is using it at will while refusing to abide by UN resolutions. It threatens global peace. We can never accept that." The Turkish leader also called on the UN Security Council to deal with Israel's nuclear weapons in the way it deals with Iran.

On Monday, as Turkey fumed at the insult to its envoy, Ayalon and Liberman insisted they were simply standing up for Israel's honor.

"The Israeli message was, 'we've had enough'," said Professor Ephraim Inbar, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "Erdogan has taken things too far. What our diplomats did might have not been the best treatment of an ambassador, but it came from the gut. The signal is that we're not going to take it any more."

Turkey demanded a full apology. Ayalon delivered a partial retraction, but no word of apology. Gul then threatened to recall Ankara's ambassador unless a formal apology was forthcoming by a Wednesday evening deadline. Under pressure from Peres, Ayalon finally delivered the apology; Turkey withdrew its threat.

All through the incident, there was strange hesitancy, and a deafening silence from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sources close to Netanyahu said he was disturbed by the prospect of a breach with "an important ally", but he seemed unwilling to take on his foreign minister.

If there is one thing on which there is an Israeli consensus, it is that the bullying tactics of the hardline Liberman make him unsuitable to run Israel's diplomacy. Yet, not a single cabinet minister publicly condemned the tarring and feathering of the Turkish ambassador.

Even the opposition, and also Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who has been trying desperately all through the repeated crises of the past year to keep the strategic Turkish-Israeli military ties on an even keel) refrained from criticizing Liberman.

This demonstrates how powerful a pivotal force Liberman is within the Netanyahu government, and exposes the limits of the prime minister's power to curb him - much less to fire him. Instead, Netanyahu chose backdoor diplomacy to persuade Liberman's deputy that he back down in face of the Turkish dictate.

For now, Turkey may be assuaged. But, the once solid relationship seems rockier than ever. Barak is due to travel to Turkey on Sunday in an attempt to consolidate military ties and to smooth out problems in a multi-million dollar purchase by Turkey of drones built by Israel's aerospace industries.

Turkey and Israel have a long history of secretive military cooperation going back to the 1950s. Turkish commentators used to refer to it as "the ghostly alliance". In 1996, the two countries signed an agreement allowing Israeli pilots to train in Turkish airspace in return for which Israel refurbished Turkish military aircraft and provided hi-tech equipment.

Since Erdogan's rise to power in 2002, the influence of the Turkish military over the country's civilian leadership has declined. The close military cooperation between Turkey and Israel has become more and more problematic. Last fall, Turkey summarily barred Israel from participating in a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air drill in Turkish airspace.

The Barak visit is aimed at restoring confidence in the strategic ties and in paving the way for future deals with Israel's military industries which have already meant contracts worth upward of US$1 billion.

While some observers point to the Islamist roots of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and suggest that this is the cause of the strain in relations, the origins of the quarrel seem to lie more in Israel's Gaza war.

And now, even should Israeli policy towards the Palestinians change, another major plank of support for good Israeli-Turkish ties has been swept away by the humiliation of the Turkish diplomat, says Israeli strategic affairs analyst Zvi Barel.

"The serious damage is in the deep erosion in Turkish public opinion which used to be the basis for Turkey's warm relations with Israel. It is this same public that in 2003 didn't let the Erdogan government permit American use of Turkish airspace en route to Iraq, and the same public that turned out in huge numbers to protest the war in Gaza.

"That public base for a good relationship has now been badly shaken by the treatment of their ambassador. It reminded Turks of the way the Ottoman Sultans would humiliate foreign emissaries. It will be very difficult for the Turkish public to forgive."

(Inter Press Service)

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