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Turkey demands Israeli apology as ties sour

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey demanded an apology from Israel on Tuesday over what it called the discourteous treatment of its ambassador, further souring ties between the two regional powers on the eve of a visit by Israel’s defense minister.

Turkey, as a Muslim state, is an important ally of Israel and in the past has helped forge contacts between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

But relations have soured following strong criticism by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip last year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Turkey had begun aligning itself with Muslim countries hostile to Israel -- like Iran -- since before the Gaza campaign.

“This is cause for concern for Israel,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying late on Tuesday by an official in his office.

The official said the Israeli leader had known the Turkish ambassador was being summoned, but that he had been unaware of the manner in which the meeting would be held.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon had attempted to slight Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol during a meeting on Monday to protest against a Turkish television drama that portrayed Israeli diplomats as masterminds of a child abduction ring.

Ayalon invited media crews to the beginning of the meeting in Jerusalem and pointed out there was no Turkish flag on the table. He also said he was deliberately avoiding a handshake with the ambassador.

In television images widely broadcast in Turkey, Celikkol was seen seated on a low couch, accentuating the sense of a dressing-down.

“We expect an explanation and apologies from Israeli authorities for the attitude against our Tel Aviv ambassador Oguz Celikkol, and the way this attitude was reflected,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.

“We call on the Israeli Foreign Ministry, whose behavior and attitude toward our Tel Aviv Ambassador did not comply with diplomacy, to obey courtesy rules,” it said.

In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, Ayalon was unapologetic: “In terms of the diplomatic tactics available, this was the minimum that was warranted given the repeated provocations by political and other players in Turkey.”

Turkish officials on Tuesday denied suggestions in some Middle East media that Celikkol had been recalled, saying he was in Turkey to attend a prearranged gathering of ambassadors.

The latest exchange comes ahead of a planned one-day visit by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Turkey on Sunday. Barak’s office said on Tuesday the visit was at the invitation of Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

Israel on Monday issued a strong condemnation of Erdogan, whose ruling AK Party has roots in political Islam, saying his often fierce public criticism of its policies could undermine relations.

There was similar outrage last year over a Turkish series which featured Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian children.

On Tuesday in London, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu renewed his country’s criticism of Israel over Gaza.

He said its 2008 invasion of the territory had marked the turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations, at a time when Turkish-brokered peace negotiations were close to bringing about peace between Israel and Syria.

“One day before the attack on Gaza, we were so close to peace between Israel and Syria (and) suddenly Gaza was attacked by Israeli air forces,” Davutoglu said.

The official in Netanyahu’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkey also began shifting its position due to the slow progress in its bid to enter the European Union.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Michael Roddy