Turkish PM Blasts Israeli President Over Gaza at World Economic Forum

January 30, 2009 - 6:04 AM
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Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, left, stalked off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, after verbally sparring with Israeli President Shimon Peres, right, over Gaza. (AP Photo/Keystone/Laurent Gillieron)

(Update: Israeli President Shimon Peres says his heated public exchange with Turkey's prime minister was not personal and that ties between the two nations won't change. On Friday, Peres said he talked with Erdogan afterward and that "My respect for him didn't change.") 

Davos, Switzerland (AP) - Turkey's prime minister received a hero's welcome home Friday after he reproached Israel's president over the Gaza offensive and stalked off the stage at the World Economic Forum.
 
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was greeted by a jubilant crowd of more than 5,000 supporters, many waving Turkish and Palestinian flags, who flooded Istanbul's airport when his plane touched down about 2 a.m.
 
Some outside of the airport gate held banners that applauded his Palestinian stance in Davos. "The conqueror of Davos," one banner read.
 
Hours earlier, the Turkish leader and Israeli President Shimon Peres raised their voices and traded accusations in front of a packed audience at a World Economic Forum panel. Peres was passionate in his defense of Israel's three-week offensive against Hamas militants, launched in reaction to eight 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 those civilians. Thirteen Israelis also died.
 
"Why did they fire rockets? There was no siege against Gaza," Peres said, his voice rising in emotion. "Why did they fight us, what did they want? There was never a day of starvation in Gaza."
 
Erdogan was angry when a panel moderator cut off his remarks in response to an impassioned monologue by Peres defending Israel's offensive against the Hamas rulers of Gaza.
 
"I find it very sad that people applaud what you said," Erdogan said. "You killed people. And I think that it is very wrong."
 
Peres' and Erdogan's raised voices were highly unusual at the elite gathering of corporate and world leaders, which is usually marked by polite dialogue.
 
The angry exchange followed an hour-long debate at the forum attended by world leaders 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.
 
"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, leaving fellow panelists U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon and Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa.
 
"When it comes to killing, you know it too well," the Turkish leader said.
 
When the moderator tried to cut short Erdogan's remarks, saying it was past time to adjourn for dinner, he answered in frustration, "Don't interrupt me. You are not allowing me to speak."
 
He then said: "I will not come to Davos again."
 
In brief comments at Istanbul's airport, Erdogan said he had been insulted. "My responsibility is to protect the honor of the Turkish nation." He added that Peres called him before he left Davos and expressed his regrets.
 
In Jerusalem, Peres' office confirmed that the two men spoke on the phone shortly after the incident, a conversation his office described as "positive" but during which Peres did not apologize.
 
The heated debate with Israel and Turkey at the center was significant because of the key role Turkey has played as a moderator between Israel and Syria.
 
During the debate, Erdogan appeared to express a sense of disappointment when he recounted how he had met with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert days before the offensive, and believed they were close to reaching terms for a face-to-face meeting with Syrian leaders.
 
Obama's new Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, will be in Turkey for talks Sunday.
 
Ultimately, Erdogan stressed he left not because of a dispute with Peres but because he was not given time to respond to the Israeli leader's remarks. Erdogan also complained that Peres had 25 minutes while he was only given 12 minutes.
 
"I did not target at all in any way the Israeli people, President Peres, or the Jewish people," Erdogan told 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.
 
Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, said Erdogan's action was understandable.
 
"Mr. Erdogan said what he wanted to say and then he left. That's all. He was right." Of Israel, he said, "They don't listen."
 
Erdogan brushed past reporters outside the hall. His wife appeared upset. "All Peres said was a lie. It was unacceptable," she said, eyes glistening.
 
"I have know Shimon Peres for many years and I also know Erdogan. I have never seen Shimon Peres so passionate as he was today. I think he felt Israel was being attacked by so many in the international community. He felt isolated," said former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik.
 
"I was very sad that Erdogan left. This was an expression of how difficult this situation is."