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The real significance of Erdogan's Davos outburst

I finally got a chance to watch the fascinating video of the now-infamous Davos panel featuring Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres, which ended with the Turkish prime minister walking off and declaring that Davos was over for him. He was upset because moderator David Ignatius had permitted Peres to speak twice as long as the other participants and then didn’t give Erdogan much time to respond. (The panel was already overtime and dinner was waiting). Erdogan returned home to Turkey and was reportedly greeted by large crowds of enthusiastic supporters. In response, Turkish flags have been displayed in Gaza.

Having now watched the panel in its entirety, here are a few quick reactions:

1. First, whoever established the format of the panel blew it big time. This wasn't some academic gathering on an obscure topic: it was a panel featuring two heads of state, the U.N. secretary-general, and the secretary of the Arab League, dealing with an obviously explosive issue. Arranging the order so that Peres would go last and giving him twice as much time to speak was bound to spur resentment. Equally important, it meant that there was no time for the audience to ask questions or for the panelists to engage in any back-and-forth with each other. Given the personalities involved and the topic itself, it was unrealistic to expect the participants to sit quietly and listen to each other's remarks and then head obediently off to dinner.

2. Three of the four panelists -- Erdogan, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, and Arab League secretary Amr Moussa -- were sharply critical of Israel's conduct during the recent clash in Gaza. None of their formal remarks struck me as especially heated, however, and none expressed significant support for Hamas. All three stressed the need for renewed peace efforts, with Amr Moussa emphasizing the importance of the 2007 Arab League peace initiative.

3. Erdogan's formal remarks made it clear he was upset by Israel's decision to launch the Gaza operation without informing Turkey beforehand. This is an important issue for him, because Israeli PM Ehud Olmert visited Turkey just before the attack was launched and because Turkey has been mediating indirect talks between Israel and Syria and probably has indirect contacts with Hamas. Israel's assault on Gaza made Erdogan look like something of a dupe, and so his irritation was to be expected. Erdogan also made some pointed remarks about the operation itself, although his remarks didn't strike me as crossing the bounds of civility.

4. Given the balance on the panel, one can perhaps understand why the organizers let Peres go last and gave him twice as much time to speak. (The first three panelists got about 10 minutes each; Peres was given 25 minutes for his own remarks, which pretty much used up the hour allotted for the session). But Peres's response was far more heated and combative than the remarks of the other participants, and as Richard Silverstein notes here, it also contained a fair number of dubious claims. For example, Peres claimed that Hamas had never won a democratic election, and that Israel had not formally responded to the 2007 Arab League peace plan because Iran (which is not part of the Arab League) was trying to dominate the region. Instead of sounding statesmanlike and reasonable in Israel's defense, Peres came off as angry and defensive. And I couldn't help wondering what the audience thought -- it didn't strike me as a performance likely to win over very many people.

5. It is also easy to understand why Erdogan wanted a chance to rebut, and why he resented moderator David Ignatius's efforts to bring the panel to a close and hustle everyone off to dinner. Given Turkish public opinion, it would have been extremely difficult for Erdogan to simply sit quietly and absorb Peres's heated remarks without saying a word. Had the situation been reversed, I would have expected Peres to insist on an opportunity to reply as well, especially if he had to run for office anytime soon. It wasn't polite of Erdogan to ignore the moderator's well-intentioned efforts to stick to the program, but his reaction was hardly surprising.

6. The real significance of the exchange is what it tells you about public opinion in Turkey, as well as the potential effects of democratization in the broader Middle East. I think Erdogan was genuinely angry, but his anger reflected Turkish opinion as well. His performance at Davos is bound to help his image in Turkey itself, and could help his party perform well in local elections scheduled for March 2009. Given that Turkey has been Israel's main ally in the Muslim world, this shift is not good news for Israel. And if more and more governments in the Middle East become responsive to the will of the people (whether or not they become Western-style democracies), it is going to be more difficult for ruling elites to do nothing in the face of Israeli actions like Gaza, no matter how much foreign aid these regimes get from Washington.

7. Last comment: I'll bet David Ignatius felt terrible, but it really wasn't his fault.

Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

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