Netanyahu: Turkey Drift Toward Iran Is Worrying

Premier says Lieberman has 'full backing' over incident between deputy foreign minister, Turkish envoy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Turkey's closer ties with Iran and Syria were a cause for concern in Jerusalem and that he fully backs Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for the controversial reprimand delivered by his deputy in a meeting with Ankara's ambassador.

"Turkey is consistently gravitating eastward to Syria and Iran rather than westward [over the last two years]," Netanyahu told aides. "This is a trend that certainly has to worry Israel."

Officials in the prime minister's bureau said that the decision to summon the Turkish ambassador for a reprimand was jointly made by Netanyahu and Lieberman.

Netanyahu aides added that the premier was not aware of the choreographed nature of the meeting between Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Turkish ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol.

"From the moment the incident occurred, the prime minister is fully backing the foreign minister," a source close to Netanyahu said.

The Turkish government communicated a blunt message Tuesday demanding an official apology from Ayalon for his televised castigation of Ankara's ambassador to Tel Aviv.

Turkey said that Israel's refusal to apologize posthaste would prompt retaliatory "diplomatic steps." Israeli officials said that, in the worst case scenario, Turkey could recall its ambassador as a sign of protest.

Turkish officials made the demand during a meeting Tuesday to which they summoned Israel's ambassador to Ankara, Gabi Levy.

The Israeli ambassador was asked to clarify a Foreign Ministry statement in response to Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayip Erdogan's criticism of Operation Cast Lead. "The Turks are the last ones who can preach morality to Israel," the statement read.

"We're waiting for an apology from the Israeli side very soon," a Turkish official told Levy. "If there won't be an apology, we will respond with diplomatic steps of our own."

A Turkish official denounced Ayalon and Lieberman on Tuesday as "adolescent youths" for the incident.

Israeli officials were angered by statements made Monday by Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayip Erdogan, who accused Jerusalem of using "disproportionate power ... while refusing to abide by UN resolutions" relating to its policy toward the Palestinians.

In addition, Israeli officials were furious over a recently aired Turkish television program, "Valley of the Wolves," which portrays Shin Bet security service agents as child kidnappers.

In response, Ayalon summoned the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, for consultations.

During the meeting, Celikkol was seated in a low sofa, and facing him, in higher chairs, were Ayalon and two other officials - an arrangement carried out on the orders of Ayalon's superior, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

A photo-op was held at the start of the meeting, during which Ayalon told the photographers in Hebrew: "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."

Celikkol's associates told Army Radio on Tuesday, that the meeting with Ayalon was the most shameful display he had seen in 35 years as a diplomat.

According to the associates, Celikkol had no idea what the topic of conversation was to be when first seated. When the cameras left the room, the sources said, the meeting was normal and professional.

"Had the ambassador understood Ayalon's intentions, which were only expressed in Hebrew, he would have responded in kind," the source told Army Radio.

Celikkol told Army Radio that the episode was the most shameful experience of his 35-year career.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Ayalon did not intend to humiliate Celikkol by seating him in a lower chair without flag representation during their meeting.

Celikkol was called in regarding a recent Turkish television drama depicting actors dressed as Shin Bet officers who kidnap babies.

In response to the incident, the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Tuesday summoned Israeli Ambassador Gaby Levy for clarification.

"It would be worthwhile for Israel to know its boundaries and to not dare cross them," a Turkish official said.

He added that Ankara knows to differentiate between the various constituent elements of the Israeli government, and that it would prefer to deal only with ministers and leaders who assume a more moderate line.

Ankara on Tuesday rejected Israel's criticism of Turkey's past while accusing Lieberman and Ayalon of staging the incident to enhance their domestic political standing.

"Turkey has always been a friend to Jews," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"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," the statement read.

"We expect an explanation and apologies from Israeli authorities for the attitude against our Tel Aviv ambassador Oguz Celikkol, and the way this attitude was reflected," the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.

"We call on the Israeli Foreign Ministry, whose behavior and attitude towards our Tel Aviv ambassador did not comply with diplomacy, to obey courtesy rules," it said.

The Foreign Ministry stressed that it had summoned the envoy and ordered the seating arrangment to make clear that it would respond to any insult made by the Turkish leadership.

Meanwhile, Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke on Tuesday during a press conference in London following his meeting U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband regarding his country's ties with Israel.

"Relations between Turkey and Israel will go back to normal once Israel returns to a pro-peace policy," he said, adding that "the Turkish government made great efforts to advance the peace process between Israel and Syria, but Israel's attack on Gaza harmed our efforts and has become an obstacle in our country's relations," he added.

Just three months ago, a similar diplomatic instance occurred between the two countries after Turkey aired the controversial television drama Ayrilik ("Separation") which featured actors dressed as Israeli soldiers killing Palestinian children.

Israeli officials: Liberman wants to keep tense ties with Turkey

Meanwhile, ministry sources said Monday that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was trying to stop Defense Minister Ehud Barak from visiting to Turkey next week, in order to keep up the recent tensions between the two allied countries.

Barak was scheduled to leave for Turkey on Sunday to meet with his counterpart and the foreign minister there, in an attempt to improve deteriorating relations.

Tensions were renewed on Monday, after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Israel was endangering world peace by using exaggerated force against the Palestinians, breaching Lebanon's air space and waters and for not revealing the details of its nuclear program.

According to Foreign Ministry sources, Lieberman is now looking to "heat things up" before Barak's trip, so as to torpedo attempts to mend the tensions.

"We get the sense that Lieberman wants to heat things up before Barak's visit," a senior Foreign Ministry source said. "All of the recent activities were part of Lieberman's political agenda."

The Turkish government was expected to give a warm welcome to Barak, who alongside Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was looking to bring the allies' relations back to stability.

The Foreign Ministry sources surmised that Lieberman's efforts were aimed at preventing Turkey from resuming its role as mediator in Israel's peace talks with Syria.