Back to diplomacy school for Israel?

JERUSALEM, Israel — The American humorist Caskie Stinnett once wrote that “a diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.” In other words, someone who doesn’t make his meaning so clear that one is both afraid of the trip to hell and angry about being sent there.

Which makes Israel’s two top “diplomats” rather less than diplomatic.

Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon caused turmoil in relations with Turkey last week when he decided to upbraid the Turkish ambassador. Ayalon and his boss, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, wanted to let the Turks know that they found it unacceptable that a Turkish TV drama portrayed Israeli agents kidnapping children and the Israeli ambassador’s assassination.

Ayalon kept the Turkish ambassador hanging around in an anteroom, in front of cameras from two Israeli news channels. When he brought him and the cameras into his office, he sat the unfortunate envoy in a low sofa and perched stony-faced on his own, much higher chair. Between them on the coffee table stood a single Israeli flag about the size of a pocket handkerchief.

Then he turned to the cameras and said, in Hebrew: “Pay attention that he’s sitting in a low chair and we’re higher up, and there’s no Turkish flag here, and we’re not smiling.” The cameramen suggested a handshake. “No,” said Ayalon. “That’s the whole point.”

In the Oxford Dictionary I keep on my desk, “diplomacy” is described as “skill in managing international relations; adroitness in personal relationships, tact.” Perhaps Ayalon, who’s always been rather charming and intelligent when I’ve met him, ought to keep a copy on his desk. Maybe he put it in the drawer with the little Turkish flag he stands on the coffee table, when he isn’t trying to show the Turkish ambassador that he’s angry with him.

The following day, the Turkish ambassador spoke out in an Israeli newspaper. “How could he be so rude?” he said.

That was the essence of the reaction in Israeli newspapers, whose journalists are no fans of Foreign Minister Lieberman, an indelicate former night-club bouncer whose burliness and Moldovan birth make him — in the eyes of the press — rather unqualified to tread the minefield of politesse that is international diplomacy.

Ayalon issued an equivocal apology after a day. But the Turks insisted on a fuller apology, which came after the Turkish president said Ankara might recall its ambassador.

“I wish to express my personal respect for you and the Turkish people,” Ayalon wrote to the Turkish ambassador, “and assure that although we have our differences of opinion on several issues, they should be discussed and solved only through open, reciprocal and respectful diplomatic channels.”

On the same day Ayalon told the parliament that because of his protest “Israel is respected more.” Presumably he means that the Turks will be satisfied with the apology but will tread more carefully in the future lest their representative find himself sinking into a low chair without a nice Turkish flag to cling onto.

Why do relations with Turkey matter so much to Israel, and why did things get so bad this week?

Turkey is a major client of Israel’s defense industries. Despite the diplo-spat, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is in Turkey for an official visit during which he’ll discuss some important new military contracts. Last month Turkey said it’d push ahead with a $190-million deal to buy drones from Israel Aerospace Industries.

Some Israeli commentators think Lieberman and Ayalon, whose party Israel Our Home sits uncomfortably in the cabinet alongside Barak’s fractious Labor Party, engineered the tension to embarrass the defense minister.

More likely Lieberman had had enough with Turkish vilification of Israel. That began a year ago, when Turkey was one of the most outraged opponents of the war Israel waged on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The reaction back then included a surprisingly undiplomatic outburst at the economic conference in Davos, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan berated Israeli President Shimon Peres and stormed off the stage because the host told him it was time to end the panel and go to dinner.

Since then, Israeli diplomats maintain, Erdogan has missed no opportunity to lambast Israel. In Lebanon last week, Erdogan argued that Israel’s nuclear capability ought to be treated the same way as Iran’s nuclear program, and also said Israel threatens “world peace.”

The Israeli diplomats say that the controversial Turkish TV show was the last straw for Lieberman and provided a veiled way of punishing Erdogan for his aggressive statements.

In which case, it was actually quite diplomatic.