Erdogan’s verbal assault pits Turkey against Israel

Armenian Genocide recognition seen as leverage

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Thursday February 05, 2009

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan points his finger at Israeli president Shimon Peres on a panel in Davos.

Washington - Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's public squabble with Israeli president Shimon Peres was welcomed in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, but created anxiety in Israel and the United States.

During a January 29 panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Erdogan became increasingly agitated as Mr. Peres defended the recent Israeli military action against Palestinians in Gaza. During his speech, the Israeli president raised his voice and pointed his finger at Mr. Erdogan, who had earlier condemned Israeli action as a "crime against humanity."

In response Mr. Erdogan angrily described Israeli leaders as murderers and sadists.

"When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill," he told Mr. Peres. "I know very well how you killed children on the beaches. Two of Israel's prime ministers personally told me that they felt happy when they [invaded] Gaza."

The Turkish leader condemned those present for applauding Mr. Peres and stormed out. The packed audience at the forum included a number of foreign officials, including Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama.  

"New World leader" who "humiliated the Zionists"

Thousands of Turks welcomed Mr. Erdogan as he arrived at Istanbul airport in the early hours of January 30. Waving Turkish and Palestinian flags, crowds held signs that read "welcome conqueror of Davos" and "a new world leader," according to the Jamestown Foundation's summary of Turkish TV and press reports.

"I only know that I'm responsible for protecting the honor of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish nation from A to Z," Mr. Erdogan said at the airport, the New York Times reported. "It was a matter of my country's respect and prestige. I couldn't have allowed anyone to hurt the prestige and especially the honor of my country."

Leader of Turkish ultra-nationalists Devlet Bahceli praised Mr. Erdogan, expressing hope that his assertive tone would also be reflected in dealing with Kurds and "relations with Armenians against the so-called genocide claims."

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad chimed in, welcoming the Turkish premier's demarche, saying it "humiliated the Zionists" and "disgraced" Israel, Press TV reported. One of the Iranian ayatollahs suggested that Mr. Erdogan deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his activism.

But Artak Shakarian, an Armenian expert on Turkey, argued that Mr. Erdogan's rhetoric was meant in part to sideline Iran and position Turkey as the "leading defender of the Muslim world," Regnum news agency reported on February 2.

And Cengiz Candar, a Turkish expert on the Middle East, told Radikal newspaper that Turkey gained "moral leadership" in the region, even though the region's Arab leaders themselves appeared to be less than thrilled with Mr. Erdogan's rhetoric.

Victim of "biased" moderation

In a press conference after the panel and before departing Switzerland, Mr. Erdogan stressed that he condemned anti-Semitism and that he had no intention to sever Israel-Turkish ties.

Instead, Mr. Erdogan channeled his anger toward the panel's moderator, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, complaining that he had allocated less time to him than to Mr. Peres.

Several Turkish and Azerbaijani media outlets focused on Mr. Ignatius's ethnicity.

Azeri Press Agency (APA) ran a short story with the revealing headline, "Moderator of panel cutting Erdogan off is of Armenian origin." In tortured English APA alleged that "Ignatius [was] supporting so-called Armenian genocide did not want his nationality was on the agenda. He bewares of opinions casting shadow upon his objectivity."

One of the leading Turkish newspapers, Hurriyet, suggested that Mr. Ignatius was in cahoots with the "Armenian lobby" and described him as "Jewish American journalist of Armenian descent."

The latter description is not surprising since, according to a recent opinion poll, a significant portion of Turks believe that Armenians are of Jewish faith, and Turkish nationalists tend to target both Jews and Armenians.

(In reality, Mr. Ignatius is of Armenian descent and has written about it. His father Paul Ignatius, born Poghos Ignatosian to a family of immigrants from Kharpert, served as Secretary of the Navy in the late 1960s and was president of the Washington Post.)

Misunderstood "friend of Israel"

In aftermath of the incident both Turkish and Israeli officials were at pains to suggest that nothing extraordinary had happened.

Israel's ambassador to Turkey, Gabby Levy, was quoted on Turkish television as saying: "There can be a difference in opinion between close, friendly countries from time to time, and we, Turkey and Israel, especially have different views on Hamas and Iran."

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League repeated the argument to the Jerusalem Post, saying cooperation would continue despite the "inappropriate harsh statement by the [Turkish] leadership." He told the New York Times that the league had not changed its opposition to the Armenian Genocide bill in Congress.

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Aleppo citadel - site of the AGBU celebration in Oct. 2008 (pictured) - is now in ruins. AGBU

Calendar of Events

The uncertain fate of Armenian communities in the Middle East and particularly in Aleppo will be discussed on Sept. 29 in LA and Oct. 9 in Boston; for details about these and other upcoming Armenian happenings in America consult the Calendar of Events.