January 30, 2009 2:00 am

Erdogan storms out of debate on Mideast peace

The World Economic Forum in Davos was rocked by a diplomatic fracas last night as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, stormed off the stage after an emotional debate with Shimon Peres, Israel's president, in a session about Gaza and the case for Middle East peace.

Klaus Schwab, organiser of the Davos gathering, scrambled to reassert "the Davos spirit" after Mr Erdogan said he would never return to the Swiss resort.

The incident was one of the biggest upsets to an event dedicated to what he called "natural understanding" between nations.

Mr Erdogan, sitting beside Prof Schwab in a hurriedly-organised press conference, said that he had walked out because David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist chairing the session, had not allowed him to reply to comments by Mr Peres about the conflict in Gaza.

Mr Peres had spoken for 25 minutes, twice the length of time Mr Erdogan had spoken, and five times the length of time participants had been given for their opening remarks, he said.

Mr Ignatius had reached out to tap Mr Erdogan on the shoulder as his speech overran, prompting the Turkish prime minister to push him away.

Mr Erdogan complained that Mr Peres had raised his voice and addressed him "in a manner not in line with . . . the spirit of Davos".

"I have great respect for Peres and for his age," he said, but what the Israeli leader had said about Gaza was "not true because history refutes it and political science too".

Mr Erdogan said at the press conference he would talk to Prof Schwab about whether to return, but a repeat of the moderation "would cast a shadow over efforts to reach peace".

"I always yield when it is necessary but that does not mean I will always take the lower hand," he said.

Amr Moussa, secretary- general of the Arab League, and another participant in the debate, told the FT that the moderation had been "simply unfair".

Israel has long regarded Turkey as its closest ally among Muslim states, and has traditionally enjoyed intense diplomatic, commercial and military ties with Ankara. When the current Israeli government started its latest peace initiative with Syria, which has since been frozen, Turkey acted as the principal mediator.

However, relations took a turn for the worse when Israel launched its military offensive against the Gaza Strip in late December. Turkish leaders repeatedly lashed out at Israel for the heavy civilian casualties.

www.ft.com/davosvideo

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