Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Decline of Turkish-Israeli Relations: As Seen on TV

Like the arrival of the full moon or utility bills, we can now come to safely expect a monthly flare-up in the relations between Turkey and Israel.

The latest one follows a familiar script. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lays into Israel for its actions in Gaza and berates the world for criticizing Iran over its nuclear program while saying nothing about Israel's. At the same time, a Turkish television show stirs the pot by airing an episode that portrays Israelis as bloodthirsty killers and dangerous meddlers in Turkey's affairs. This all leads to an angry Israeli response and the two sides again have to move into damage control mode. (You can get more details about latest spat here. Take a look at this previous post to see how this scenario played out back in October.)

Things played out a bit differently this time. Intent on showing its displeasure, Israel's Foreign Ministry invited the Turkish ambassador for a dressing down -- and took the undiplomatic step of inviting the press to film the ambassador waiting for his appointment in the hallway, like a naughty schoolboy outside the principal's office. Once in the meeting, Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, instructed the cameramen to "Pay attention that he is sitting in a
lower chair and we are in the higher ones, that there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling."

Israel is clearly fed up with being Erdogan's punching bag but my guess is that the childish episode with the Turkish ambassador is going to backfire. Erdogan clearly is not going to change his ways. Meanwhile, the Turkish public -- whose hearts and minds Israel needs to somehow win, even if ever so slightly -- will certainly not look kindly upon one of its diplomats being publicly humiliated by another country. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already summoned Israel's envoy in Ankara over the matter and issued its own strongly worded statement in response to what happened.

The only winner here seems to be the odious "Kurtlar Vadisi" (whose latest season is subtitled, appropriately, "Ambush"), the show that helped spark this latest Turkish-Israeli flare up (more on it here). Initially a cultural and ratings juggernaut that in many ways helped drive and shape the political discussion in Turkey by creating a series that played to every nationalist sentiment and fear in the Turkish psyche, the show has lately been receding into the shadows. Now, thanks to the Israeli Foreign Ministry's own attempt at bad television, "Kurtlar Vadisi" is back where it like to be: in the middle of setting Turkey's political agenda.

For some background on the story and how it might affect the future of Turkish-Israeli relations, take a look at this Christian Science article of mine that was just posted online. Aluf Benn in Ha'aretz is also worth reading (although I find his last point off the mark).

[Update: The domestic reaction in Turkey to the events in Israel continues to intensify. Erdogan has said he will not meet with Barak during his visit. Hurriyet also adds:
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç blamed “Lieberman and his team” for the recent tension. “This is unpleasant behavior, but it is not unexpected. This, however, does not mean that we are forgiving Israel,” said Arınç, an influential figure in the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Israel’s treatment of the Turkish ambassador drew reactions from the country’s opposition parties as well. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, described it as impudence and called on Israel to apologize. Onur Öymen, a former diplomat and deputy leader of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, said no country had the right to behave in such a way to the representative of the Republic of Turkey.

“The word ‘scandal’ is not enough to describe this move,” Öymen said.
[Update II: It appears that Turkey's ambassador to Israel is heading back to Ankara for "consultations". The Jerusalem Post has the story.]

(photo: Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon meeting with Turkish ambassador Oguz Cellikol in Jerusalem. AP)

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