ANKARA, Jan 12 (Ibon Villelabeitia/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 defence 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. The criticism was repeated on Tuesday by Turkey's foreign minister.
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 behaviour and attitude towards 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 Defence 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.
'LIKE A GHETTO'
Turkey renewed its criticism on Tuesday of Israel for its 2008 invasion of Gaza, saying it had scuttled a potential peace deal, despite an Israeli warning that Turkey's stance was detrimental to their relations.
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, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
He said the Gaza attack had marked the turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations and denied speculation the cooling was linked to difficulties with Turkey's bid to join the European Union or with any Islamisation of Turkish foreign policy.
Some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the 22-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip that Israel launched in December 2008 in response to Hamas rocket attacks.
Israel and Syria held four indirect rounds of peace talks in Turkey in 2008, but they were suspended following the resignation of then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in September that year.
Syria said at the time of the Israeli offensive that it ruled out a resumption of the indirect talks any time soon.
Muslim but secular Turkey is an important ally of Israel but relations have cooled since then.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak will pay a one-day visit to Turkey on Sunday, Turkish and Israeli officials said, a trip that could help mend frayed ties between the two regional powers .
Israel said on Monday that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's often fierce public condemnation of its policies could undermine relations after Erdogan criticised an Israeli attack that killed three Gazan militants on Sunday.
Davutoglu said it was Turkey's right to criticise Israel over the Gaza offensive because his country had worked hard to reduce tensions in the region and one attack destroyed all this infrastructure for peace.
As one of the leading countries in this region, we cannot tolerate humanitarian tragedies, he said.
A year after the offensive, Gazans still lacked houses, children did not have schools and the blockade continued, he said.
Gaza is still like a ghetto in our region, he added.
If Israel responded to international calls to stop settlement building and worked for peace, Turkish-Israeli relations would immediately change in a positive direction, Davutoglu said.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Michael Roddy, Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Adrian Croft in London)