ISTANBUL // Turkey yesterday threatened to withdraw its ambassador from Israel after the deliberate and public humiliation of the Turkish envoy by the government in Tel Aviv, a development that brought ties between the traditional allies to a breaking point. Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, said the envoy, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, would be recalled to Ankara if Israel did not offer a formal apology. After issuing statements that fell short of the Turkish demands during the day, Israel offered a full apology last night, according to Turkish media reports.
It remained unclear whether Turkey was satisfied with the latest Israeli text. In a sign of how far Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated, Mr Gul refused to rule out that ties to Israel would be permanently reduced to a lower level. "That will be looked at," Mr Gul told reporters. Even given the rough tone that has characterised Turkish-Israeli relations for some time, the treatment by the Israeli government of Mr Celikkol was extraordinary. The Turkish envoy was summoned to meet Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, in a room in Israel's parliament building in Jerusalem on Monday to discuss Israeli complaints about a Turkish television show that depicts Israeli secret agents in a bad light.
Israeli television crews and photographers were invited to the meeting, in which the ambassador, after having to wait in a corridor, was seated on a sofa that was much lower than Mr Ayalon's chair. During the photo session, Mr Ayalon told the Israeli journalists in Hebrew they should be sure to highlight the difference in height between himself and the ambassador. He also had a Turkish flag and snacks removed from the table, leaving a single Israeli flag. "The important thing is that people see that he's sitting low and we're high and that there is only one flag," Mr Ayalon told reporters.
Mr Celikkol told Turkish media Israel had played an "ugly game" with him. "I have never seen such a diplomatic scandal in my life." Even an Israeli diplomat agreed. "Maybe next time they will make the Turkish ambassador crawl or beat him up, who knows," the Hurriyet daily quoted Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Ankara, as saying. "I feel ashamed that the ambassador was personally punished and humiliated."
The new crisis comes after a steady build-up of problems in Turkish-Israeli relations over the past few years that has weakened the foundations of a strategic partnership between two close allies of the United States in the region and triggered worries that Turkey, led by a mildly Islamist government, may be turning away from the West, an assumption that Ankara denies. Turkey and Israel are two of the biggest military and economic powers in the region. A break-up of their partnership, sealed by an agreement for close military co-operation in 1996, would make Israel more isolated, because it would lose its closest friend in the Muslim world, but would also make it more difficult for Turkey to present itself as an honest broker that can talk to all sides of the Middle East conflict.
Turkey has angered Israel by strongly criticising military operations in the Gaza Strip and by defending the right of Iran to conduct a peaceful nuclear programme. A year ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, angrily broke off a panel debate with Shimon Peres, Israel's president, at the World Economic Forum in Davos in protest against Israel's offensive in Gaza. This week, Mr Erdogan said he would not travel to Davos again. He also renewed his criticism of Israel.
After the meeting between Mr Ayalon and Mr Celikkol, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned Gaby Levy, the current Israeli ambassador to Ankara, to protest against the treatment of Mr Celikkol and demand that Israel "adhere to the rules of diplomatic courtesy and respect", according to a ministry statement. "Turkey will always respond to such an approach of the Israeli government," Mr Erdogan told reporters in Ankara. Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, said: "There can be no dialogue with the Israeli foreign ministry under these circumstances."
Turkish media quoted government officials as saying Mr Ayalon's behaviour was part of a plan by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's right-wing foreign minister, to sabotage a visit to Turkey by his more dovish coalition partner Ehud Barak, the defence minister, who is expected in Ankara this weekend. Mr Barak is said to be concerned about the sorry state of Turkish-Israeli ties. Mr Erdogan made a veiled reference to the intra-Israeli reasons behind the treatment of Mr Celikkol. "The fact that Israel's current government is a coalition has nothing to do with Turkey. That is their domestic problem."
In an effort to defuse the crisis, Mr Ayalon issued a first statement saying: "It's not my custom to offend ambassadors." Although he stood by his decision to summon Mr Celikkol to convey his protest against the Turkish television show, Mr Ayalon expressed regret about what had happened. "In the future I will explain my positions in accepted diplomatic ways." That statement fell short of Turkish demands. In a second statement transmitted to Ankara last night, Mr Ayalon "apologised to the ambassador [Celikkol] and the Turkish people", according to the Hurriyet website.
The Turkish television show Valley of the Wolves has Turkish secret agents battle against all kinds of evildoers. A few years ago, a feature film ofValley of the Wolves caused a stir because it showed US troops in Iraq as villains and Israeli doctors as members of an organ-selling mafia. This time, the show on Star TV, a private channel, presented Israeli agents as baby-snatchers. Last year, another Turkish television show triggered Israeli protests because it depicted Israeli soldiers killing unarmed civilians.
Bahadir Ozdener, the screen writer for Valley of the Wolves, said in yesterday's Yeni Safak newspaper that the show would continue to shock Israel. "We will do our utmost to make them even more uncomfortable." According to the daily, a feature film called Valley of the Wolves ? Israel may be on the way. firstname.lastname@example.org