Turkish Premier, Israeli President Clash at Davos
Friday, January 30, 2009
DAVOS, Switzerland, Jan. 29 -- Turkey's prime minister stalked off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland red-faced Thursday after reproaching Israel's president over the Gaza war by saying "You kill people."
The packed audience, which included President Obama's close adviser Valerie Jarrett, appeared stunned as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres raised their voices and traded accusations.
Peres was passionate in his defense of Israel's 22-day offensive against Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, launched in reaction to years of rocket fire aimed at Israeli territory. As he spoke, Peres often turned toward Erdogan, who in his remarks had criticized the Israeli blockade of Gaza, saying it was an "open-air prison, isolated from the rest of the world" and referred to the Palestinian death toll of about 1,300, more than half of them civilians, according to health officials. Thirteen Israelis died.
"Why did they fire rockets? There was no siege against Gaza," Peres said, his voice rising with emotion. "Why did they fight us, what did they want? There was never a day of starvation in Gaza."
The heated debate between Israel and Turkey was significant because of the key role Turkey has played as a moderator between Israel and Syria. Erdogan appeared to express a sense of disappointment when he recounted how he had met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just days before the offensive and believed they were close to reaching terms for a face-to-face meeting with Syrian leaders.
Obama's new Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell, is scheduled to be in Turkey for talks Sunday.
Erdogan was angry when a panel moderator cut off his remarks in response to an impassioned monologue by Peres defending Israel's offensive against Hamas.
"I find it very sad that people applaud what you said," Erdogan said. "You killed people. And I think that it is very wrong."
The angry exchange followed an hour-long debate at the annual meeting of economic and political elites in Davos. Erdogan tried to rebut Peres as the discussion was ending, asking the moderator, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, to let him speak once more.
"Only a minute," Ignatius replied.
"Mr. Peres, you are older than me. Your voice is too loud," Erdogan told Peres, saying his emotion belied a guilty conscience.
"You kill people," Erdogan told the 85-year-old Israeli leader. "I remember the children who died on beaches. I remember two former prime ministers who said they felt very happy when they were able to enter Palestine on tanks."
When Erdogan was asked to stop, he angrily stalked off.
Erdogan stressed that he left because he was not given time to respond to the Israeli leader's remarks. "I did not target at all, in any way, the Israeli people, President Peres or the Jewish people," Erdogan said at a news conference afterward.
"I am a prime minister, a leader who has specifically, expressly stated that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity," he said.