JERUSALEM — Even in the tough world of Middle East diplomacy, it was a startling snub: The Turkish ambassador was seated lower than his Israeli host, denied not only a handshake but a smile – all for the benefit of eager Israeli TV crews.
While diplomatic messages are often found in subtle gestures and body language, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon offered a humiliating reprimand of Ankara's envoy – ostensibly over a TV show. His actions drew an angry response from Turkey on Tuesday, exposing the deep rift that has emerged over the past year between the Jewish state and its closest friend in the Muslim world.
The conflict also reflected a deeper shift under way in the region as Turkey's Islamic-oriented government has moved closer toward Israel's archenemy Iran.
Israel and Turkey – powerful non-Arab states in an overwhelmingly Arab region_ have forged close military and economic ties in recent decades. For Israel, the Turks have given Israel a rare ally in the Muslim world, while the Turks have been able to gain favor with the West. Last year, the Turks mediated several rounds of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria.
The alliance, however, has become strained since the election of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-oriented party in 2002 – particularly in the wake of Israel's war against militants in the Gaza Strip last winter.
Erdogan has repeatedly criticized Israel's use of overwhelming force and the hundreds of civilian deaths during the incursion. In one memorable incident days after the Gaza war, Erdogan stormed off a stage he was sharing with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum. Turkey also canceled a high-profile military exercise with Israel last fall.
Erdogan reignited tensions this week when he accused Israel of being a threat to world peace. A Turkish television drama, "The Valley of the Wolves," which depicts Israeli security forces as kidnapping children and shooting old men, has added to the hostilities. That followed a drama aired on Turkish state television last October that portrayed Israeli soldiers shooting a Palestinian baby at close range. Israel has said the programs are anti-Semitic and inflammatory.
Ayalon summoned the Turkish ambassador late Monday to express Israel's displeasure over "The Valley of the Wolves." Breaking from common practice, Ayalon invited Israeli news cameras to join the meeting. Food typically served at such meetings was noticeably absent.
Israeli TV stations repeatedly aired pictures of the ambassador, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, fidgeting in the hallway ahead of the meeting, then sitting across a table on a sofa noticeably lower than the chairs used by his Israeli hosts.
To reinforce the point, Ayalon explained to the cameramen that the Turk was intentionally seated lower, that he would not smile and that there was no Turkish flag on display. He also dismissed a reporter's suggestion that he shake hands with his guest. "No way. That's the point," Ayalon said.
Celikkol said in a live interview with a Turkish television station that he would have left immediately had he understood the comments, which were in Hebrew. However, he said, he was received warmly and chose where he was going to sit, rather than being placed on the lower sofa.
"I believed that this was a courtesy visit and did not know that it would be about a Turkish television drama," he said.
In a radio interview Tuesday, Ayalon refused to apologize.
"I think that it's the Turks who need to apologize, for the latest things Erdogan said yesterday and for those never-ending TV shows," he told Army Radio.
Israel's Foreign Ministry also said "the Turks should be the last to preach morality," an apparent reference to Turkey's past conduct against Armenians, Kurds and Greek Cypriots.
In Ankara, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Israel's ambassador for a tongue-lashing. It said Ayalon displayed "behavior that does not comply with diplomacy" and demanded steps to repair the damage.
Nonetheless, Erdogan signaled that Turkey could soften its stance if Israel did the same.
The diplomatic spat reflects a much bigger transformation going on in both countries. Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, is a veteran diplomat and a member of an ultranationalist party whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has urged his diplomats to be a little less diplomatic.
Still, Israel has made it clear that it values the alliance with Turkey. The Israeli military has several lucrative contracts with Turkey and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is scheduled to travel there next week.
Turkey has also sent mixed signals as it balances its emerging role as a voice for Muslims with a continuing alliance with the West.
It has supported Tehran's right to acquire nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Israel, like much of the West, believes Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon and thinks the international community should be isolating, not coddling, the clerics in Tehran.
Alon Liel, who served as Israel's top diplomat in Turkey in the 1980s, said repairing the divide between the countries would require one of two things: an improvement in Israel's relations with the Arab world or Erdogan's departure as prime minister. Neither appears to be imminent.
"I am very worried about the crisis as a whole and I don't think it can be stopped in the near future," he said.
Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu and Gulden Alp contributed this report from Ankara, Turkey.