Israel tries to defuse diplomatic flap with Turkey

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s deputy foreign minister has signaled he regrets humiliating Turkey’s ambassador, in an effort to defuse a diplomatic flap that has further strained ties between the once-close allies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also weighed in publicly Wednesday for the first time since the flap erupted earlier this week, gently chiding the Israeli diplomat for his conduct.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon did not go so far as to explicitly apologize for inviting Israeli TV crews on Monday to film how he forced Ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol to sit on a sofa lower than his and denied him a handshake.

And he stood behind his decision to summon Celikkol to protest a Turkish TV show that depicts Israeli intelligence agents as brutal.

But “it’s not my custom to offend ambassadors,” Ayalon said in a statement to the Israeli media late Tuesday. “And in the future I will explain my positions in accepted diplomatic ways.”

The put-down enraged Turkey and deepened the rift that has emerged over the past year between the Jewish state and its closest friend in the Muslim world.

Israel has been worried by Ankara’s tilt away from the West and toward the Jewish state’s archenemy, Iran, while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been fiercely critical of Israel’s use of overwhelming firepower against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The Turkish Embassy was not immediately available for comment early Wednesday. But Israel Radio said the insulted Cellikol wants an explicit apology.

For years, Israel had enjoyed close military and economic ties with Turkey as Ankara sought to grow closer to the West. In 2008, the Turks mediated several rounds of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria that have since broken down.

But Israel’s war against Gaza Strip militants who had fired thousands of rockets at Israel for years signaled a sharp downtown in relations, exacerbated by Turkey’s improved ties with neighboring Iran.

Erdogan was outraged by the high Palestinian civilian death toll, and days after the offensive began, he stalked off a stage he was sharing with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with the parting shot: “You kill people.”

Turkey also canceled a high-profile military exercise with Israel last fall.

Erdogan reignited tensions on Monday by accusing Israel of threatening world peace. That same day, Ayalon summoned Celikkol, and the frictions exploded.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office said the Israeli leader was satisfied with what he characterized as Ayalon’s “apology,” adding that the protest was justified, “but should have been expressed in an accepted diplomatic fashion.”