Shimon Peres put on a display of fireworks, venom and histrionics–in his talk at Davos (60 minute video) about the Gaza war–that was startling. He shouted, wagged his finger, hectored, berated. It was astonishing. His antagonist was primarily the Turkish prime minister Erdogan, who took Israel’s prime minister Olmert to task for wasting an opportunity to make peace with Syria under Turkish auspices during a meeting only four days before the Gaza attack. In fact one wonders why Olermt would go forward with such a meeting when he knew what the IDF had in store for Gaza. It really was the ultimate insult for his Turkish hosts. Of course, if you read the Israeli rightist press like the Jerusalem Post you’ll find nothing but vitriol for Turkey, which is viewed as the one which betrayed Israel. But the right never wanted negotiations with Syria anyway.
Erdogan rather eloquently called for Israel to embrace negotiation rather than violence to achieve its aims. While he admitted that some find Hamas distasteful, he reminded his listeners that they were elected fair and square by Palestinians to represent them. Clearly, the Turkish leader felt burned by the investment of time and capital in attempting to bridge the differences between Israel and Syria and achieve a peace agreement. He saw the Gaza operation as a personal affront to these diplomatic efforts. It is for this reason that Turkey’s reaction to Gaza has been so harsh and unyielding. You can’t really blame him.
From his point of view, Turkey held out an opportunity for Israel to achieve peace with Syria through negotiations rather than the gun. And what was Israel’s response? To spurn it by letting loose the dogs of war in Gaza.
When it came time to Peres to speak he was given 25 minutes to meander (while the previous speakers had been given 10 minutes each). The Israeli president unleashed a harsh, unyielding rant that was full of strange statements, truncated arguments and meandering rhetoric. Clearly, he is feeling the effects of his age as his remarks bordered on the incoherent at times. But what was most evident was the choleric tone.
Here are a few of the stranger statements: he claimed that Israel could not accept the Saudi 2002 initiative because “there was a small problem of Iran” which wishes to rule the Middle East. Peres also claimed that Hamas did not win a democratic election. Rather Mahmoud Abbas DID win an election as president of the Palestinians. Peres also claimed there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza; that Israel supplies all the water, fuel and electricity that Gaza needs; and that if there is a problem he would personally intervene to correct it.
Israel’s president touted the work of his Peres Center, for bringing 5,500 Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals to be “cured” of their illnesses. He bragged that every Israeli hospital has Arab doctors who can communicate with these patients. The level of cultural condesenscion and nobless oblige in these remarks was rather astonishing.
Peres weirdly asked why Hamas wouldn’t turn to the path of negotiation, and then promptly said that Israel could never negotiate with a Palestinian government that included terrorist thugs like Hamas.
He claimed that Israel never broke a ceasefire, never fired unless fired upon. After Erdogan complained that his car had been delayed 30 minutes at the Israeli border crossing into the West Bank, Peres had the temerity to claim it happened because such cars have been known to be packed with dynamite. Can you imagine Israel’s president justifying such a severe diplomatic breach by claiming that the car of a sovereign head of state (AND Israeli ally) might’ve been packed with dynamite? I’m scratching my head over that one. Is this nuttery supposed to be doing Israel a favor?
It’s like he’s been living in an cocoon and not been reading the world’s newspaper or television news programs to see what his own troops have inflicted on the Gazans. In fact, he reminds me a bit of an embalmed figure the Israelis release from his state of suspended animation every few weeks so he can go before the world community and convey his truculent message, after which they put him back in his cocoon where he can return to hibernation. This was a sad day for Israel.
If I was a bit less charitable I might say that Peres’ extraordinary performance is emblematic of Israel’s own lagging performance on the world stage. Just as Israel sputters with rage and does such a poor job of pursuing its interets and persuading the world of its good intentions–so Shimon Peres today represented Israel in the most shabby and loud-mouthed fashion. While I have disliked and disagreed with Peres’ political views for almost ten years now, this was truly his nadir, and along with it, Israel’s.
After Peres completed his tirade, Erdogan asked for time to rebut him. Washington Post journalist and moderator, David Ignatius cut him off after 2 minutes or so and brought the proceedings to an end. Erdogan arose angrily and announced that it would be his last visit to Davos. Personally, I think the Davos organizers have only themselves to blame. They created a panel of talking heads without allowing any interaction with the audience. There wasn’t even an opportunity for the speakers to directly address each other through questions and give and take. It was a recipe for pontification and confrontation.
By the way, I found the remarks of Amr Moussa, the Arab League secrary to be the most cogent, thoughtful and eloquent. I urge you to listen to them. If there were only people of good will and sharp thinking like him on both sides, the conflict could easily be resolved.
Erdogan’s talk begins at about the 7 minute mark. Peres begins at about the 31 minute mark. Erdogan’s walkout occurs at about the 1:00 mark. Though it’s a long video, it’s quite interesting and worth watching if nothing else for the rare opportunity to see powerful Middle East leaders exploding in rage and fireworks.
UPDATE: Did Peres apologize with his tail between his legs or not?
Peres: Such things happen between friends. I am very sorry for today’s incident. Firstly, my respect towards the Turkish republic and you as prime minister has never changed.
Erdogan: Firstly, of course. There is no doubt that such arguments can happen between friends. But nobody can even speak to a tribe leader so loudly and in front of the international community, and not to the leader of the Republic of Turkey.
Peres: I raised my voice. In fact my friends tell me that I have a quite voice. This has nothing to do with my relationship with the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey. I am very sorry for what happened today.
Erdogan: I heard that you are going to hold a press conference.
Erdogan: If you express these sincere feelings, which I believe you will, in tomorrow’s press conference, I assume this problem will be mostly overcome.
Peres: Of course I will publicly express these remarks.
Needless to say, Israeli leaders don’t feel any compunction about being true to their word. There was no press conference and further, Peres now denies apologizing. In addition, he now claims the only purpose of the call was to ensure the “situation doesn’t deteriorate further.” Does he think that denying he apologized after insulting Turkey’s prime minister will IMPROVE the situation?
All this proves that Israeli machismo is more important than salvaging a relationship with the only Muslim nation which recognizes Israel and facilitates peace negotiations with one of its major Arab adversaries. Peace is less important than saving face before the Israeli public. Which is why Turkey felt compelled to distribute a transcript of the phone call via its government news service.