JERUSALEM â€“ Israel publicly snubbed Turkey’s ambassador over his country’s persistent criticism of the Jewish state, with a government official refusing to shake the envoy’s hand and making him sit on a lower seat at a meeting.
Turkey’s ties with Israel have been strained by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s fierce criticism of the Jewish state’s use of force against Palestinians.
On Monday evening, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon summoned the Turkish ambassador to criticize a Turkish television drama depicting Israeli security forces as kidnapping children and shooting old men. Another show broadcast last year also portrayed Israeli security forces as brutal.
As the meeting started, Ayalon told cameramen the ambassador was pointedly seated on a sofa lower than his own chair. He also noted there was no Turkish flag on display and that Israeli officials weren’t smiling.
Asked before the meeting whether he would shake hands with Ambassador Ahmed Oguz Celikkol, he replied, “No. That’s the point.”
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement Tuesday calling on Israel “to abide by diplomatic courtesy and respect.”
“Turkey is expecting steps to repair the treatment of our ambassador in Tel Aviv,” the statement said.
For years Israel’s isolation in the overwhelmingly Arab Mideast had been eased by good ties with predominantly Muslim Turkey.
In 2008, it mediated several rounds of indirect talks between Israel and Syria.
Turkey and Israel grew close in the mid-1990s, their alliance based on mutual fears of Iran and Syria. Israel has supplied hundreds of millions of dollars of military hardware to Turkey over the years, the two countries conduct joint naval exercises and the Israeli air force trains over Turkish airspace.
But since Erdogan’s government came to power in 2003, it has also forged closer ties to Iran and Hamas. Turkey believes Hamas must play a key role in the Palestinian territories.
The alliance began to fray after Israel’s three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip early last year.
Erdogan, who heads an Islamist-oriented government, set off the latest round of acrimony by accusing Israel of being a threat to world peace and using disproportionate force in the Gaza war. The operation was launched against Gaza militants, but hundreds of Palestinian civilians were among the more than 1,400 dead.
“We can never remain silent in the face of Israel’s attitude. … It has disproportionate power and it is using that at will, while refusing to abide by U.N. resolutions,” Erdogan said in Ankara Monday at a joint news conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Israel lashed back by insisting it had “the full right” to protect itself against Islamic Hamas militants in Gaza, which had bombarded Israel with thousands of rockets for years before the offensive, and against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas who struck Israel with 4,000 rockets during their 2006 war.
“The Turks should be the last to preach morality,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement late Monday, an apparent reference to Turkey’s past conduct against Armenians, Kurds and Greek Cypriots.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry rejected that criticism, saying Turkey has always been a friend to Jews.
“Deep-rooted relations between Turks and Jews that precede the establishment of the Israeli state and the general structure of our relations give us the responsibility to make such warnings and criticism,” it said in a statement.
Because Israel is so concerned about the deteriorating ties with Turkey, there was much criticism Tuesday of Ayalon’s blunt conduct. Cabinet Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer of the Labor Party, who has been trying to repair ties, called it “uncalled for” and “humiliating.”
Speaking to Army Radio, Ayalon refused to apologize. “It’s the Turks who need to apologize,” for both Erdogan’s remarks and the TV shows, he said.
The Turks summoned Israel’s ambassador Gabriel Levy on Tuesday “to express unease and seek explanation,” Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency said.
Turkey’s public fury with Israel peaked a year ago at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland, where Erdogan stormed off a stage he shared with Israeli President Shimon Peres, after telling him, “you kill people.”
Turkey later scrapped a military exercise involving Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out Turkey’s resuming its role as mediator in Israel-Syria talks, which broke down with little tangible progress after the Gaza war.