He signaled that problems in relations with Turkey should be left in the past and the two regional allies should proceed to a new level of cooperation for peace and stability in the region.
“We see Turkey as a very important regional player. I have the confidence that we can continue to follow good friendly cooperation despite ups and downs,” Ehud Barak told a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart, Vecdi Gonul.
Barak’s one-day visit came only days after the diplomatic skirmish sparked by Israel's undiplomatic treatment of the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv. It was not a very high profile visit, as Barak held talks with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Gonul. He was not given an appointment by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while the meeting with President Abdullah Gul was given for Monday morning but could not be held because the Israeli minister was scheduled to fly to Germany at the time. Barak did not have a meeting with Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug either.
A diplomatic crisis erupted last week after Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon summoned Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol to protest at a TV series for provoking anti-Semitism, seating him on a lower sofa without a handshake. After the Turkish government threatened to recall its ambassador, the Israeli government sent a letter of apology that was deemed satisfactory by the Turkish side.
“Ayalon conveyed his apology. I met with the Turkish ambassador in Ankara. I believe it was a mistake and the right steps were taken. We are committed to international norms of diplomatic relations,” Barak said in response to a question.
Turkey and Israel have strategic relations with strong military and economic ties over the past 15 years. Barak’s visit to Ankara was scheduled long before the diplomatic spat but was a critical one to test bilateral ties. Davutoglu held a three-and-a-half hour meeting with Barak, who showed special interest in Turkish Ambassador Celikkol who was present during the meeting at the Foreign Ministry. Barak asked his private cameraman to take a souvenir photo of him with Celikkol, according to diplomatic sources.
The Israeli government is divided over relations with Turkey with the Labour Party camp led by Barak representing a wider perspective and willing to mend ties with Ankara, while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman adopts a more hawkish attitude.
The Turkish defence minister delivered positive messages.
“We are living in the same area and although we don’t have a common border with Israel, we have the same interests. As long as we share interests, we will work together. We are strategic allies,” Gonul said. “We would like to cooperate with Israel in every area.”
‘We are eager to work together’
After the press conference, Barak met representatives of the Turkish media and gave messages aimed at repairing ties.
“The role of Turkey in the Middle East is, of course, very important for Israel to establish and develop a stable relationship with Turkey, even though we sometimes have disagreements and ups and downs in relations,” he said.
“We are eager to work together to make the region stable. In this regard, we believe Turkey has a lot to contribute. In fact, it is contributing a lot,” the Israeli defence minister added. “I met the Turkish ambassador at the Foreign Ministry... and I expressed my wishes that we can leave that behind us and my hope that this will not happen [again] in the future.”
Ayalon once hired to lobby for Turkey
The diplomatic spat caused by Ayalon’s humiliating treatment of Celikkol was covered extensively by both the Turkish and Israeli media. Unlike his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who does not have a diplomatic background, Ayalon has a long history in diplomacy, including serving as Israeli ambassador to Washington.
Interestingly, Ayalon was also hired by the Turkish government in 2007-2008 to lobby for Turkey in Washington DC, the Daily News has learned from well-placed sources. At the time, he was working with Dubi Weissglass, a diplomatic advisor to former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon.
Despite that experience, Ayalon has not given up on making controversial remarks targeting Turkey, which the sources called a political game to placate the grassroots of his right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu. In remarks published in the Israeli media, Ayalon said on Saturday that if Israel was attacked, all options would be on the table, including the expulsion of ambassadors.
In the interview with Channel 2, Ayalon said of Foreign Minister Lieberman: “His policy is proving to be effective. We will not allow a situation where every country will kick us.” Ayalon added that last week’s incident, in which he reportedly “humiliated” the Turkish ambassador by making him sit in a lower chair, was intended to send the Turks a threatening message, not to humiliate the ambassador personally.