As Israeli-Turkish relations hit a new low with the threat that Turkey might withdraw its ambassador, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said he expects Israel to be treated with “dignity and respect” by Turkey.
The sign of respect Lieberman is looking for would be for the Turkish government to censor Turkish media by banning a TV show that depicts Israeli soldiers as war criminals. Israel’s war on free speech continues on many fronts without much success — other than in America.
The slide in relations between the two major regional powers began with Israel’s war on Gaza. In Davos, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood up for Turkish dignity by refusing to be silenced after Israeli president Shimon Peres launched a bombastic tirade in defense of Israel’s right to wage war.
Though in the eyes of the Western media the Davos incident was seen as a “spat”, much more importantly in Turkey and across the Middle East, Erdogan was seen as a national leader unwilling to countenance disrespect from an Israeli leader — however much the latter might act out, used as he is to being coddled by the West.
Now we have Lieberman, whose diplomatic talent has been shaped by his experience working as a nightclub bouncer, endorsing a plan that was designed to teach Turkey a lesson. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon seemed to think that if the Turkish ambassador was forced to look up to him — literally — humiliation would deliver in its wake, respect.
This is how the meeting unfolded where the Israeli minister conveyed to Turkey’s ambassador Oguz Celikkol how offensive Israel finds “Valley of the Wolves”.
During the photo-op at the start of the meeting, Ayalon reportedly 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 Israeli Army Radio on Tuesday that the meeting with Ayalon was the most humiliating event he had experienced in 35 years as a diplomat.
Those in Israel who understand something about the way diplomacy works know that Ayalon made a huge blunder. He now faces criticism even from inside his own party, Israel Beiteinu.
“He is finished politically,” an Israel Beiteinu official told The Jerusalem Post. “This ruins his reputation as a diplomat. It is a stain that cannot be erased. He damaged Lieberman and first and foremost himself.”
Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said: “The respect for Israel is not judged by how you humiliate an ambassador; humiliation doesn’t help, it only harms.”
While Ben-Eliezer and others indicate that political realism still exists in Israel, Ayalon’s mistake was less that of pure error of judgment than that of representing an Israeli mentality too faithfully.
Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, facetiously told Israeli Army Radio that “a new sort of diplomacy” had been invented, and that Lieberman had “made up a new way of reprimanding.”
“This time, they made him sit on a low chair, next time maybe they’ll make him crawl, and who knows, maybe the time after that they’ll beat him up at the entrance,” Liel said.
The former Israeli ambassador’s intention might have been to mock Lieberman, but the idea that contempt generates respect serves as a foundation stone for Zionism. Israel’s struggle to pacify its opponents has since 1948 been a relentless effort to demonstrate who stands above and who must crouch below.
Israel has placed all its bets on the effectiveness of coercion — an investment from which it is difficult to move away. There is no easy road that leads from contempt to mutual respect. Indeed, in those whose nature it is to treat others with contempt there is an underlying assumption that respect is something which will never be freely conferred.
What Danny Ayalon and those Israelis who are cast in the same mold repeatedly and unwittingly display is their own lack of dignity. They have no idea how profound a difference there is between demanding respect and being worthy of respect.