Israel attempts to heal rift with Turkey

Ehud Barak flies in for talks with country's most important Muslim ally
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak yesterday embarked on the task of restoring smooth relations with Turkey in the wake of a humiliating and high-profile dressing-down given to Ankara's ambassador last week by the Israeli Foreign Office.

Mr Barak held meetings in the Turkish capital designed to repair the ties between Israel and what is easily its most important Muslim ally after a year of worsening tensions that began with Ankara's outspoken criticisms of Israel's three-week military onslaught on Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The row erupted over a Turkish TV drama series, The Valley of the Wolves, which shows Israeli intelligence agents kidnapping Turkish babies and shooting old men, and another Turkish programme showing the Israeli military in a deeply unfavourable light.

But the row descended into a crisis when Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, summoned the Turkish ambassador for a dressing-down, not because of what was said to the ambassador but because of the instructions Mr Ayalon gave to local camera crews invited to cover the event. He was caught on microphones telling the crew filming the Turkish diplomat, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, who was seated on a low sofa: "The important thing is that people see that he's low and we're high and that there is one flag here."

Mr Ayalon, with the initial backing of his boss, the controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, declined to apologise for his breach of diplomatic protocol. It was only after a threat by Turkey to withdraw the ambassador and the intervention of the Israeli President Shimon Peres that a formal letter of apology was issued.

Mr Celikkol, who was also offered no refreshments or even a handshake at the meeting and was reportedly kept waiting before being admitted to Mr Ayalon's office, offered him the defence that the broadcast Israel complained about was a private-sector production and not the work of the Turkish government.

Mr Barak, after meeting his Turkish counterpart, Vecdi Gonul, yesterday, described the incident as a "mistake" and added: "It is appropriate that all the ups and downs in our relationship over the years should be solved and put behind us." As a goodwill gesture, Mr Barak had himself photographed with Mr Celikkol, who had travelled back to Ankara for the long-arranged visit by the Israeli Defence Minister.

Mr Gonul said after the meeting that Israel was a "neighbour" and strategic ally", adding: "We are living in the same area, [and] although we don't have common borders, we have the same interests." Going to the heart of the military relationship between the two countries, Mr Gonul added that Israel will deliver 10 Heron unmanned aircraft to Turkey in the first half of this year. Turkey is expected to use the drones to monitor Kurdish rebel bases.

But differences do remain between Israel and Turkey over Iran as well as over the treatment of the Palestinians. Turkey, with its accession negotiations with the EU faltering, is increasingly looking eastwards. While saying it opposes nuclear weapons proliferation, Ankara has taken the position that Tehran has the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

Mr Lieberman, who has instructed diplomats to operate "zero-tolerance" towards criticism of Israel deemed "anti-Semitic", defended the substance though not the form of Mr Ayalon's protest. "We don't seek conflicts, but we will stand our ground," he said. But he added: "Whoever is sensitive to honour must also be sensitive to the honour of others. I hope we can turn the wheels backward on our relations."