To the eye, the tragicomedy performed this week on the Foreign Ministry's stage, Israel vs. Turkey, has a happy end: The lead actor, Danny Ayalon, sent a letter of apology to the Turkish ambassador and his superiors, and Turkey's threat to bring its ambassador home was lifted. However, the problem was not a slip of the tongue or a comment leaked from a closed meeting. It was a deliberate act by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his deputy Ayalon, and the finale is far from happy. We have to turn it into the beginning of something else: the removal of Lieberman and Ayalon from the rickety flagship of Israeli diplomacy.
Lieberman opted to clash publicly with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan so he could play the role of the defender of national pride. It may be that Lieberman believes his stance will win votes for his party. This is yet more proof of the folly of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who gave Lieberman the foreign affairs portfolio. Netanyahu has been Israel's ambassador to the United Nations and a deputy chief of mission in Washington, and Ayalon has been ambassador to Washington. Both should know how diplomats and foreign ministries behave, but their professional experience has been undermined by the influence of Lieberman. In this affair Netanyahu presented himself as co-conspirator or a weakling, and both options are bad.
The anchor of Turkish-Israeli strategic ties is the Turkish army, which has seen itself as the constitutional keeper of the seal since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the modern Turkish regime after World War I. For the past 50 years the two countries' defense establishments have had a useful relationship. This week, the incoming Defense Ministry director general, Udi Shani, visited Turkey, and early next week Defense Minister Ehud Olmert is due in Ankara.
The Turkish generals suffer due to the vitriol of Erdogan, the leader of an Islamist party. Only a fool would burden them further with a public insult to Turkey's official representative in a way that bolsters Erdogan as the defender of national pride, someone who managed to humiliate those who humiliated him and extricate an apology - while worsening the popular mood toward Israel. The Turkish army's sympathy for its Israeli counterpart will not be enough to overcome Turkey's hostile political elite and public opinion.
Israel has a justified argument with Erdogan's stance on Iran and Hamas. An argument should be carried out using educated reasoning, without hyperbole. In the same spirit, Erdogan's proposal to resume mediation between Israel and Syria should be reexamined. Diplomacy should not become a circus.
The excitement over a television program in which Israel is shown in a distorted way is especially strange. National and religious stereotypes appear in movies and the media throughout the world; in Israel, too. These are not a subject for foreign ministers or their deputies, and it is certainly ridiculous to turn their protest into another three-part television series: protest and humiliation, insult and threat, backtracking and apology.
There is a substantive difference between being steadfast and aggressive. In their foreign policy, Lieberman and Ayalon are displaying this second quality. If Netanyahu leaves them in their posts, it means they are setting Israeli policy, not he.
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