(photo credit: AP)
In what appears to some in Jerusalem as an attempt to create friction between the Israeli and Turkish military establishments, the Turkish Foreign Ministry called in Israeli envoy Gabi Levy Saturday to protest reports that an IDF general sharply criticized Turkey's prime minister for his harsh condemnation of Israel during Operation Cast Lead.
"We confirm that the Turks protested to the ambassador. He [Levy] wrote it down and will pass it on to Jerusalem," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Saturday evening.
OC Ground Forces Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrahi was paraphrased in an Haaretz feature Friday as saying during a lecture at the Tactical Command College on Tuesday that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been vicious in his criticism of Israel since Operation Cast Lead, should first look in the mirror.
The report said that Mizrahi, not a household name in Israel, "did not leave it at a clear allusion to the massacre of the Armenians and the suppression of the Kurds, but mentioned the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus as well."
The Turks asked Levy whether the comments were true, and for an explanation.
The IDF Spokesman's Office issued a statement saying, "In his lecture, Maj.-Gen. Mizrahi referred to the moral level of IDF commanders and soldiers during Operation Cast Lead.
"When referring to the criticism Turkey leveled at Israel, the general said that the statements [made by Turkey] could also be interpreted as criticism of Turkey. The IDF Spokesman wishes to clarify that this does not reflect the official IDF position."
Despite Erdogan's extremely harsh comments during the Gaza operation - among them that Israel should be barred from the UN, that Israel was perpetrating inhumane actions that would lead to its destruction, and his upbraiding of President Shimon Peres at the Davos summit last month - Israel has never called in the Turkish ambassador to register a protest.
While Erdogan has gravely taken Israel to task, the Turkish military has stayed above the fray.
According to one school of thought in Jerusalem, however, making a major diplomatic issue over a paraphrased quote of an IDF general in the newspaper is an attempt to cause friction between the two military establishments.
Reuters reported that the Turkish General Staff, in a statement carried by the state-run Anatolian news agency, said Mizrahi's remarks were untrue and completely unacceptable.
"The comments have been assessed to be at the extent that the national interests between the two countries could be damaged," it said.
Military ties between the two countries are important to both, with Israel one of Turkey's key arms suppliers, and Turkey letting Israel use Turkish airspace for training exercises.
Turkey is extremely sensitive about three issues: the Armenian issue, the Kurds and Cyprus, and the feeling in Ankara is that Mizrahi managed to step on each of those blisters at one go.
The Turks also differentiate between what politicians, like Erdogan, say and what military men, like Mizrahi, say. The feeling in Ankara is that were the same comments made by Olmert or any other politician, they would not have elicited as strong a reaction as when uttered by a general.
Meanwhile, Erdogan continued his verbal sparring with Israel on Saturday, saying in an interview with Reuters and two Turkish newspapers that the Israeli elections left him "a bit sad."
"Unfortunately we have seen that the [Israeli] people have voted for these [rightist] parties and that makes me a bit sad," he said."Unfortunately the election has painted a very dark picture."
Erdogan, who has repeatedly condemned the Israeli blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip due to the continual rocket attacks against the western Negev, again called on Jerusalem to change its policy.
"With the cease-fire the embargo should be lifted," he told Reuters. "The Palestinian people should be freed from an open-air prison they are living in right now, this is against human rights."
In a related development, sources in the Prime Minister's Office downplayed media reports that Erdogan felt "betrayed" by Olmert because on the Israeli prime minister's trip to Turkey in late December, just days before the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, Erdogan had called Syrian Prime Minister Bashar Assad, while Olmert was in his residence, and over a four-hour period tried to reach an agreement on beginning direct talks.
According to these reports, Olmert was being briefed in real time on the content of the discussions.
According to the report, Erdogan felt betrayed because while he was still awaiting Olmert's final response to his efforts, Israel embarked on its Gaza operation.
"When Olmert was in Turkey before the war started, there was a feeling we were very, very close to direct talks with the Syrians, but it didn't come together," sources in the Prime Minister's Office said Saturday night.
According to the source, "it didn't come together," because there was not enough common ground, not because of the Gaza operation.
"It didn't come together before the beginning of the war, not because of the war," he stressed.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report