ISTANBUL — Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the World Economic Forum with a keynote speech on Tuesday here, despite having pledged not to return to the conference after a public altercation with Israeli president Shimon Peres at the same event in 2009.
Erdogan’s speech focused on Turkey’s economic growth — last year the country was the second-fastest growing economy after China, he said — but he also took the time to slam Israel. He described Turkey as “an island of stability in a region that is surrounded by major difficulties.”
In introductory remarks, Klaus Schwab, the head of the World Economic Forum, placed special emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a time when the world is concerned about the possibility of another global economic downturn.
“It’s a special pleasure to welcome you today,” he said to Erdogan before turning to the Palestinian question. “We are all very eager to hear from you. Is there any hope that this problem will be solved soon?”
“When we raise our voices it is not because we aim to intervene in others countries’ internal affairs,” Erdogan said, but the Palestinian issue was very important to Turkey “because the Palestinians are our brothers.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also “threatens regional peace and stability and that’s why we believe we must attract attention to this issue.”
Without ever uttering the word Israel, Erdogan accused the Jewish state of “killing innocent people, children, babies, women and the elderly in masses” by bombardments and by keeping people “in the largest open-air prison in the world,” referring to the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
After speaking about the Palestinian plight, Erdogan also mentioned the bloody uprising in Syria and the Iranian nuclear program, but neither issue received as much attention as the conflict in the Holy Land.
Abbas, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority president of the West Bank — one of two territories Palestinians claim for a future state — followed Erdogan at the podium, sharply criticizing Israel for the deadlocked peace process, and touting his administration’s efforts to lay the economic and legal foundations for a modern state. Islamic terror group Hamas runs the second of the territories, the Gaza Strip, though the rival Palestinian factions hope to hold elections to end their five-year rift and present a united front on the long-running conflict with Israel.
“Today we are neither at war nor at peace [with Israel],” Abbas said. “This condition could extend for decades.”
At a WEF meeting in Switzerland in 2009, President Shimon Peres and Erdogan had a spectacular public bust-up after Peres set out an Israeli economic overview at a major panel discussion and Erdogan fiercely attacked him for Israel’s incursion into Gaza, which was taking place at the time: “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” Erdogan yelled at him, and stormed off the stage.
Since then, previously friendly relations between Ankara and Israel have greatly deteriorated.
In May 2010, Israeli naval commandos intercepted a flotilla seeking to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza. After the Israeli commandos were attacked for trying to board on one of the vessels, they killed nine Turkish activists.
Ankara demanded a formal apology, to which Israel principally agreed. Jerusalem was reportedly ready to pay damages to the victims. But a normalization of relations never came about because Israeli leaders asked for Turkish guarantees that the incident would not have legal repercussions and were dissatisfied with the half-hearted pledges heard from Ankara.
Last week, relations further deteriorated when an Istanbul court decided to indict four senior Israeli military officers responsible for the flotilla raid, including former chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. The court said it sought a combined 18,000 years in prison for the nine deaths and 114 cases of torture. On Monday, as the WEF kicked off in the Turkish metropolis, a court there ordered Israel officially be notified of the charges.
The court ordered that the indictment be translated into English and sent to the Israeli Justice Ministry, The New York Times reported, adding that a Hebrew translation would be provided during the trial, which is scheduled to begin October 6.
Israeli officials reacted with scorn to the Turkish plans, with Foreign Ministry officials saying Erdogan wants to kill off bilateral relations entirely. Ashkenazi said he hoped that “common sense would prevail in the end,” and that if protecting Israeli soldiers and citizens prevented him from visiting Turkey, “that’s a price I’ll pay.”
While more than 1,000 leaders from business, civil society and government — including heads of state from Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine — are attending the two-day conference on the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia, no Israeli government representatives and fewer than 10 Israelis altogether are participating.
The theme of the conference, which is partly sponsored by the Turkish government, is “Bridging Regions in Transformation.” Core issues being discussed include the Euro crisis, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and the aftermath of the Arab Spring.