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Back to diplomacy school for Israel?

OK, the Turkish TV show was offensive, but was Israel's humiliating response helpful?

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, second from the left, and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, third from the left, attend a ceremony marking Memorial Day at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Apr. 27, 2009. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

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.