Fed up at Davos


DAVOS, Switzerland — The World Economic Forum has never seen anything quite like it: a chief of state yelling angrily at a prime minister, with the prime minister walking off the stage saying he won't be coming back to Davos again.

The startling thing was that the man doing the yelling was elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shimon Peres, president of Israel. The prime minister was Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an important Israeli ally who has been working hard to broker an agreement between Israel and Syria.

Erdogan had repeated his oft-spoken criticism of Israel in Gaza, and said that Hamas had been fairly elected and needed to be included in any solution.

“We have to respect the will of the Palestinian people,” he said, and “like them or not, Hamas is part of the Palestinian people.”

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon then described the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and secretary general of the Arab League, Amre Moussa, gave an articulate Arab bill of particulars against Israel, describing the economic strangulation of Gaza and the military occupation of the West Bank.

It was all too much for Peres, who, in mounting anger, let fly. Israel had no choice, no country would sit still and be rocketed. Israel had ripped up its settlements and left Gaza hoping for peace. Hamas wanted nothing more than to kill Jews, had murdered rival Palestinians, and its sponsor, Iran, wanted nothing less than to rule the Middle East. Turning to Erdogan and, shouting now, he asked how Erdogan would respond to rockets on Istanbul.

Time had long been up, but when the moderator tried to cut off Erdogan’s reply, the prime minister walked off the stage. 

It was an incident that will quickly be smoothed over, but the back story is important. Turkey is an important ally of Israel, and Erdogan has been deeply and personally involved with trying to bring about an Israel-Syrian agreement. He felt he was getting close until Gaza.

Why did Peres pick Erdogan to yell at? Why not Moussa of the Arab League? I believe that Peres, who has been around this track so many times, has heard everything that Moussa ever had to say and expected nothing from him.  The same might be said about any sectary general of the United Nations. But criticism from an ally hurt. And, in turn, Erdogan must have felt personally insulted after he had spent so many hours trying to help Israel with Syria.

It has long been a staple of Israeli foreign policy to find a non-Arab partner in the region. Previously it was the Shah of Iran. Now it is Turkey. The incident will be smoothed over. Peres called Erdogan to apologize.

But the confrontation highlighted why it is so difficult to bring peace to the Middle East. The exchanges were a perfect example of what political psychologists call “chosen traumas.” Each side to a conflict has its own narrative, its own reading of history, its own set of hurts and wrongs. When the trauma is deep enough it blots out any consideration for the other party’s trauma.

Shimon Peres spoke the righteous indignation of a man truly wronged. How could Erdogan and the Arabs not get it? Israel was the injured party, had always been the injured party. Its enemies had nothing less in mind but the murder of Jews. For Peres, Hamas was nothing more than a continuation of the age-old assault against the Jewish people that culminated in the Holocaust.

For the Arabs it's all about the occupation of Palestinian lands and the abuse of the Palestinian people — the endless humiliations of living under a military occupation, the endless checkpoints that make movement impossible and kills any chance of prosperity. And then there is Gaza, where once again Israel had employed its military might out off all proportion to its injuries, killing a thousand people, one-third of them children. For Arabs it was just another humiliation at the hands of Israel. For Israel, there is a perceived necessity to inflict damage to maintain its prestige — deterrence to protect a small Jewish minority in a large Arab sea.

It is an old story, the inability of parties to a conflict to understand the other’s grievances. When Greeks and Turks on Cyprus want to talk, the Turks want to talk about Greek atrocities against them, while the Greeks want to talk about Turkey’s invasion. In Northern Ireland the Catholics felt themselves to be a minority against Protestants who would never give them equal rights. In turn the Protestants thought of themselves as an embattled minority in the context of a greater Catholic Ireland.

President Obama’s chosen envoy, George Mitchell, helped bring the Irish together, and has had experience in the Middle East. But even though Israelis of good will, such as Shimon Peres, might want a two-state solution, Israel has never summoned the political will to stop fanatical Jewish settlers from taking over more and more Palestinian land.

Israel has not delivered on its bargains to stop settlement expansion.

The Palestinians, now hopelessly divided, have never really stuck to their bargain to curb their fanatics and stop violence.

Each side has its own trauma to deal with, and it blinds them to the tragedy it inflicts on the other. And Erdogan is not the only man of good will who will feel like throwing up his hands and leaving the stage.


More from GlobalPost on the challenges of diplomacy in the Middle East:

Challenges for Obama in what Mitchell hears

Special report: America needs to understand why Israel is "losing" in Gaza.