- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

DAVOS, Switzerland | Turkey’s prime minister stalked off the stage at the World Economic Forum red-faced Thursday after reproaching Israel’s president over the Gaza offensive by saying, “You kill people.”

The packed audience, which included President Obama’s close adviser Valerie Jarrett, appeared stunned as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres raised their voices and traded accusations.

Mr. Peres was passionate in his defense of Israel’s 23-day offensive against Hamas militants, launched in reaction to eight years of rocket fire aimed at Israeli territory. As he spoke, Mr. Peres often turned toward Mr. 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 an estimated 1,300, more than half of those civilians. Thirteen Israelis also died.

“Why did they fire rockets? There was no siege against Gaza,” Mr. 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.”

The heated debate was significant because of the key role Turkey has played as a moderator between Israel and Syria. Mr. Erdogan appeared to express a sense of disappointment when he recounted how he had met with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just days before the offensive, and believed they were close to reaching terms for a face-to-face meeting with Syrian leaders.

Mr. Erdogan was angry when a panel moderator cut off his remarks in response to an impassioned monologue by Mr. Peres defending Israel’s offensive against the Hamas rulers of Gaza.

“I find it very sad that people applaud what you said,” Mr. Erdogan said. “You killed people. And I think that it is very wrong.”

The angry exchange came near the end of an hour-long debate. Mr. Erdogan tried to rebut Mr. Peres as the discussion was ending, asking the moderator, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, to let him speak once more. “Only a minute,” Mr. Ignatius replied.

When Mr. 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.

Mr. Erdogan later stressed that he left because he was not given time to respond to the Israeli leader’s remarks. He complained that Mr. Peres had 25 minutes while he was only given 12 minutes.

Mr. Peres later apologized to Mr. Erdogan by telephone, Agence France-Presse reported from Ankara, citing the Turkish Anatolia news agency.

Mr. Obama’s new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, will be in Turkey for talks Sunday.

On Thursday, Mr. Mitchell visited the West Bank and held talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. As he did in his meetings with Egyptian and Israeli leaders Wednesday, Mr. Mitchell emphasized the need to halt arms smuggling into Gaza and end the crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory, imposed after the Hamas takeover.

“It’s important to consolidate a sustainable and durable cease-fire,” Mr. Mitchell said in a brief statement after meeting with Mr. Abbas. “To be successful in preventing the illicit trafficking of arms into Gaza, there must be a mechanism to allow the flow of legal goods, and that should be with the participation of the Palestinian Authority.”

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