Analysis: The diplomatic shot in the foot

Ayalon knew the rules, the decorum, the etiquette of diplomatic protests, yet he violated them in his treatment of the Turkish ambassador.

Danny Ayalon 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Danny Ayalon 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Summoning a foreign ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to hear a protest is the bread-and-butter of diplomatic relations. It happens all the time, all over the world. One country does something that another country doesn't like, and its ambassador is called into the host country's foreign ministry for a dressing down.
In Israel this is generally done at the level of deputy director-general. For instance, when the British issued an arrest warrant for Kadima head Tzipi Livni in December, British Ambassador Tom Phillips had a sit-down chat with the ministry's deputy director-general for western Europe, Naor Gilon. Gilon also called in the Turkish charge d'affaires in October to protest another virulently anti-Israeli TV show.
And last July, when Israel was furious at a European Union statement blaming settlement policy for stifling the Palestinian economy and increasing Palestinian dependence on foreign aid, then deputy director-general for western Europe Rafi Barak called in EU's ambassador for an explanation.
These meetings are almost always held it private, with the reprimanded ambassador then relaying the message back to his home capital. Afterward a statement is generally released to the press, so that the world will know that this particular incident has caused considerable concern and/or anger.
That's how it is usually done.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is no diplomatic neophyte. He has been around for quite some time, first in the Foreign Ministry, then in the Prime Minister's Office, then as Israel's ambassador to Washington, and now as deputy foreign minister.
He knows the rules, the decorum, the etiquette, yet he violated them in his treatment Monday of Turkish ambassador Oguz Celikkol. In so doing he diverted attention from Israel's justified complaints over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ceaseless haranguing of the country, and Turkey's viscously anti-Israeli television series, onto the fact that the Turkish envoy was intentionally sat on a lower sofa, with Ayalon and his aides looking down at him from on high.
The end result: Turkey comes out looking like the victim, and Israel is forced to apologize, something Erdogan never did - even after very undiplomatically upbraiding President Shimon Peres last year in Davos, and then storming off the stage.
In addition, and perhaps most damagingly, ammunition was given to those in Turkey who - like Erdogan - want to distance Ankara from Jerusalem.
Erdogan is not a Turkish King Louis XIV: He is not the state. There are many inside Turkey - in the courts, the military, the civil service bureaucracy - who would like to see Turkey's sharp tone toward Israel change. The problem now is that it will be more difficult for those people to raise their voices.
For instance, if the military says that - for its own interests - it wants to begin warming the ties with Jerusalem, those - like Erdogan - who want to distance the relationship, can answer, "After they humiliated us?"
So if Ayalon knows the rules, why did he violate them so and, in the process, shoot Israel in the foot?
Two reasons: Politics, and an informality - the lack of distance - that exists here between leaders and the media.
First to politics. Ayalon is not only deputy foreign minister, a diplomat, but he is also an ambitious politician. On Monday the political Ayalon got the best of the diplomatic one.
As a politician, Ayalon is trying to make his mark on his party, Israel Beiteinu.
With Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman under the cloud of a prolonged police investigation and possible indictment, both the leadership of the party and the position of foreign minister may soon be up for grabs. What better way to gain credit in their party then to puff out his chest and stick it to Turks, especially after all the bile they have thrown in Israel's direction over the last year?
It may make for bad diplomacy, but it makes for great Israel Beiteinu politics.
And then there is the coziness with the press. It is hard to believe that Ayalon meant things to go this way. He did, of course, violate the norm by inviting the press to the dressing down. Once he saw the media there he likely just got carried away, viewed the cameraman as part of the hevra, and began to choreograph the scene: put Celikkol on the sofa, no smiles, no handshakes, only the Israeli flag on the table.
Ayalon thought he was talking to friends, the hevra. He forgot that the microphone was on and the cameras were rolling.
Problems arising from an over-familiarity between the press and the people they cover are not a particularly Israeli phenomena. It is, however, one that former prime minister Ariel Sharon was very aware and wary of. He called it "laughing on Tuesdays, crying on Fridays."
Once, on a trip to Washington, he held the traditional briefing with the traveling press that Israeli prime ministers usually give on trips abroad. These are often very informal affairs: the guard is dropped, jokes are exchanged.
But as things got light during one such briefing, Sharon warned his aides about becoming too relaxed, saying those who laugh with the media on Tuesday, end up crying when they read what they said during those informal moments in Friday's weekend papers.
It is very likely that Ayalon, who was ambassador to the US at the time and used to attend these briefings, heard Sharon's words. It is a pity he did not take them to heart.