He should have known better. Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, wasn’t some young clueless local politician in over his head. One would assume that the savvy insider with an impressive resume, including a stint as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, would have a clear grasp of the rules of diplomacy.
But Ayalon’s clumsy and offensive handling of Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, in what appeared to be a deliberate decision to behave in a manner that flew directly in the face of diplomatic etiquette, gave Israel a black eye at a time when it didn’t need it. Ayalon further complicated Israel’s relationship with Turkey, a strategically crucial neighbor, at a time when the relationship between the two countries could not be more delicate.
Jerusalem Post diplomatic reporter Herb Keinon: “[Ayalon’s faux pas was] the diplomatic shot in the foot heard ’round the world.” The incident was also deemed “a gut-wrenching blow to Israel’s dignity” by a columnist who called for Ayalon’s resignation.
What was his crime?
For the second time, a Turkish state TV production vilified Israel. Back in October, Separation depicted fictional Israeli soldiers deliberately targeting Palestinians and committing other gratuitously bloody acts. Back then, the incident was handled by the book — a private reprimand behind closed doors and a critical public press release, an episode that got minimal press and went away quickly.
With the airing of a second Turkish program — this one entitled Valley of the Wolves, and depicting Israeli intelligence agents as serial baby-snatchers — Deputy Minister Ayalon invited Turkish ambassador Oguz Celikkol to the Foreign Ministry for a discussion.
The meeting turned out to be a public ambush. Unbeknownst to the Turkish ambassador, Ayalon invited the Israeli press. Deliberately setting the ambassador up for humiliation, Ayalon sat Celikkol at a smaller and lower chair than the Israeli participants in the meeting. In front of them was the Israeli flag alone — no Turkish flag.
And just in case the reporters missed the slaps in the face, or perhaps mistook them for oversights, Ayalon made the snubs explicit. Speaking in Hebrew — so that the ambassador didn’t understand — he pointed them out:
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.
Ayalon instantly turned the Turks into the victims and Israel into the offenders. Israel’s outrage at the Turkish television production was instantly buried under the avalanche of scandal surrounding the meeting and the torrent of criticism of Ayalon’s behavior. The Turkish press in particular had a field day with the story.
“Insolence,” blared the daily Vatan. From Cumhuriyet: “Ties with Israel are breaking down.” “Vile conspiracy,” railed the Sabah. The pro-Islamic Yeni Safak: “Despicable and immoral.”
Most of the Israeli press wasn’t very flattering either. Dvir, in Yediot Aharonot:
(Ayalon’s) childish “reprimand” of the Turkish ambassador, aside from being wholly unnecessary, was so blatantly devoid of diplomatic nuance, not to mention human decency, that it ultimately forced Israel to plead for an apology from a country that has expressed nothing but denigration for our army and leaders since Operation Cast Lead.
Moreover, our enemies have been given more ammunition to use against us. They now possess further evidence that our government can be rattled by a tabloid article or a television series. Turkish radicals will also benefit from Ayalon’s misconduct, as the worsening anti-Israeli sentiment in the Turkish government is likely to gain additional backwind.
President Shimon Peres launched damage control, declaring publicly that this hadn’t been Israel talking, but Ayalon. Peres reportedly urged Ayalon to apologize. At first Ayalon refused, arguing that it was time for Israel to take a strong stand as these incidents kept occurring. Also, continued verbal attacks on Israel by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have intensified over the past few years. In Davos, Erdogan stormed off the stage at a panel after an angry exchange with Peres over the Gaza War. The frostiness and hostility between the two countries has not been lost on the Israeli public. Once enthusiastic visitors to Turkey, Israeli tourism to the country dropped 44 percent over the past year.
After intervention by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Ayalon issued an apology, albeit with a mention that “[his] protest still stands” when it came to the television show (later clarified with another apology).
The crisis was front and center in the Israeli political arena for 48 hours as the drama played out. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu drew fire for his initial reaction to the incident — he refused to condemn Ayalon’s behavior — presumably so as not to stir up trouble within his coalition with Ayalon’s party, the rightist Yisrael B’Aliya, headed by controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. A group of 17 Knesset members — most of them members of the opposition Kadima Party, took it upon themselves to send a written apology to the Turks before Ayalon did. And Kadima head Tsippi Livni scoffed at the incident on Israeli radio, criticizing the foreign policy of Ayalon and Lieberman as ham-handed and embarrassing, and Netanyahu’s leadership as “non-existent.” She argued that a tough diplomatic line needed to be taken with the Turks, but that it should be done in a serious manner “and not through childish games of musical chairs.”
Anti-Ayalon officials in the Foreign Ministry are grumbling that the missteps were clearly no accident. They told Ha’aretz that the humiliation was deliberately set up in order to sabotage Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s upcoming trip to Turkey and to prevent Turkey’s mediation of a potential peace deal between Israel and Syria. They point out the troubling implications of open hostility towards Turkey — the further it drifts from Israel, the more cozy it has become with Iran.
But for now, the fuss does not seem to have had any substantive consequences. The purchase of $190 million worth of aircraft from Israel by Turkey is still moving forward. The Barak visit to Turkey is still on, and he is expected to meet with the Turkish defense and foreign ministers and the Turkish chief of staff.
Presumably, when planning the meetings, the Turks will be paying careful attention to the seating arrangements, and they will make sure to smile.