It is rare in the annals of international affairs that the relationship between two nations comes undone during the course of a panel discussion, but that’s precisely what happened last year at Davos, when the sometimes-dyspeptic Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the often-prolix president of Israel, Shimon Peres, slashed and burned their way through a discussion of Hamas’s attacks on Israel and the resulting Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip which had ended just days before. The arguing ended when Erdogan accused the panel moderator, Washington Post columnist and associate editor David Ignatius, of granting Peres more time to speak than any other member of the panel, and stormed off the stage. (In fact, Ignatius handled an unforgivably difficult job very well, and I don’t say this simply out of professional courtesy.) Also on the panel were the secretary-general of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa – who is no wilting flower – and the hapless secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, who, it could be assumed, regretted not missing the panel almost immediately after it started.
Some background on the unraveling of Turkish-Israeli relations helps put the cataclysmic panel discussion into context. (Even in the rare air of Davos, who would imagine that a panel discussion could ever be described as “cataclysmic”?) Turkey had been Israel’s closest Muslim friend for years. But under Erdogan’s Muslim-oriented Justice and Development Party, the country had struck up warm new friendships with Turkey’s traditional Muslim rivals – and Israel’s resolute enemies – Syria and Iran. In addition to that strain, the deeply personal anger between two world leaders seen onstage at Davos created its own momentum, accelerating what is turning into a full-blown disintegration of this previously-robust alliance – a disintegration that’s still playing out today, with ramifications for the entire Middle East, as well as for America’s intensifying confrontation with Iran.
Erdogan had come ready for a fight. The folder he carried onto the stage – a folder that reportedly carried the seal of his Muslim party, and not that of the more secular-leaning Turkish foreign ministry – contained anti-Israel polemics downloaded from the Internet. Peres, too, was ready for battle, and after a twelve-minute speech by Erdogan, Peres responded at length, and boisterously. Erdogan was playing to type – his party has made Israel a special target of attack – but Peres was forced into a role he dislikes, that of reflexive defender of his tribe. In the recent past, Peres was famous for positing the idea that a new, modern, detribalized Middle East was in the making. But in Davos, he felt forced to play what he described to me after the event as an archaic role.
The roughest moment came when Erdogan accused Peres of being a killer. “Peres, you are older than me," Erdogan said. "Your voice comes out in a very high tone. And the high tone of your voice has to do with a guilty conscience. My voice, however, will not come out in the same tone.” He went on, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill." Peres pointed a finger at Erdogan and told him that Turkey would have responded in the same manner had rockets been fired at Istanbul. But Erdogan was not listening; he was leaving. As he departed, he said, “And so Davos is over for me from now on.”
At the risk of reading too much into a sentence fragment spoken in red-faced anger, this last statement by Erdogan reflects something more than transitory pique at his perceived mistreatment by Ignatius, or at Peres’s defense of the Gaza attack. Erdogan’s promise to turn his back on Davos is of a piece with Turkey’s recent, Islamically-inspired turn away from the West and toward the East. According to Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, only one-third of Turks in a recent poll identified themselves as Westerners. In part, of course, this reflects a perceived rejection by Europe, which has lost its Christianity except when the conversation turns to the question of whether Turkey should be admitted to the European Union, at which point otherwise secular Europeans suddenly discerned the menacing shadows of Ottoman horsemen at the city gates. This turn eastward has also been prompted by feelings of Muslim solidarity, though those feelings, Cagaptay said, are being manipulated by Erdogan’s party. “There is a singular obsession with Israel,” he said. “You won’t see this government making comments about Chechens being killed by Russians or the killing in Sudan. Only Israel gets this sort of attention now.”
Expressions of anti-Semitism, which had been suppressed by the Turkish government in recent years, found their way, earlier this month, into a nationally broadcast drama called Valley of the Wolves, in an episode in which Israelis are portrayed as baby-snatchers. In response, the Israeli deputy minister of foreign affairs, a deeply undiplomatic man named Danny Ayalon, intentionally humiliated Turkey’s ambassador in Israel.
This bad feeling between Turkey and Israel has implications for U.S. policymakers. It’s always problematic when two of America’s allies don’t get along. Already, Turkey won’t participate in joint military exercises that involve Israel, meaning that, in essence, Turkey won’t help NATO if NATO helps Israel.
But in a recent conversation, David Ignatius suggested that Turkey will not allow relations with Israel to collapse entirely. “Turkey still wants to be part of the larger world of the West, and so engagement with Israel, and with the peace process, is extremely valuable to Turkey.”
While Ignatius, a Middle East expert of long-standing, is willing to talk about the complexities of the Turkish-Israeli relationship in general, he prefers not to talk about what happened on stage at Davos. “I’ve not wanted to comment publicly on what happened during that discussion because I’m a journalist,” he said. “I don’t want to get into the story more than I have. But anyone who watched it could see the intensity of anger that had built-up on both sides. It was very difficult to contain the debate within the framework of a normal discussion.”