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Turkish leader hailed at home after Israel spat

Thousands of jubilant Turks welcomed their prime minister home on Friday, thronging the airport and later chanting "Turkey is proud of you!" after he publicly confronted the Israeli president over the Gaza war.
Image: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Supporters cheer Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who publicly confronted Israel's president over the Gaza war.Bulent Kilic / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of jubilant Turks welcomed their prime minister home on Friday, thronging the airport and later chanting "Turkey is proud of you!" after he publicly confronted the Israeli president over the Gaza war.

But some commentators expressed concern that the outburst at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, would hurt Turkey's bid to be an international mediator. Some media in Israel, an ally of Turkey, suggested that the Turkish leader was a hypocrite.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won praise in Gaza, where Turkish flags fluttered from a ruined mosque and at a pro-Hamas demonstration. But a former Israeli diplomat said the Turkish leader had slapped the face of all Israelis.

Erdogan was greeted by a jubilant crowd of more than 5,000 supporters, many waving Turkish and Palestinian flags, who flooded Istanbul's airport when his plane from Davos touched down about 2 a.m.

Later Friday, a smaller crowd of about 1,500 people applauded Erdogan as he inaugurated a subway station in Istanbul. "Turkey is proud of you," they chanted.

The dispute about Israel's offensive against Hamas took place at a panel discussion Thursday.

It ended when Erdogan told Israeli President Shimon Peres: "You kill people," and then stalked off the stage.

The Israeli offensive killed nearly 1,300 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and caused an estimated $2 billion in damage, Palestinian officials say. The assault was launched to halt years of Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel.

'Turkey has lost its neutrality'
Despite the benefits to Erdogan's populist appeal in Turkey and the Muslim world, his outburst appeared to put at risk efforts to transform his country — a nation with secular ideals and an overwhelmingly Muslim population — into a Mideast mediator.

"From now on, Turkey has lost its neutrality," said Huseyin Bagci, who teaches international relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, the Turkish capital. "Turkey's role as an objective mediator in the Middle East is over."

Turkey is Israel's best friend in the Muslim world, forging close security ties over the years. During the Gaza war, Turkey positioned itself as a potential mediator with unique access to the two enemies, but its perceived neutrality faded with Erdogan's harsh criticism of the Israeli offensive.

Large anti-Israel protests were held in Turkey during Israel's three-week offensive against Hamas militants, and anger grew over civilian casualties among Palestinians. "The conqueror of Davos," one banner read at Erdogan's airport welcome in Istanbul.

Both Israeli mass-circulation papers put the confrontation on the front page. Yediot Ahronot's headline was "And what if they shot rockets at Istanbul?" — a reference to Palestinian militants' rockets that were fired at southern Israel for years. Maariv's headline was "Turkey against Peres."

'Don't tempt us'
Writing in Yediot, Alon Liel — who served as an Israeli diplomat in Turkey and was the director of Israel's Foreign Ministry — reminded readers that in November 2007 Peres made history when he addressed Turkey's parliament.

"And it was the same Peres who was dealt, along with all of us, a stinging slap on the face by the Turkish prime minister who briefly turned Davos into the sewer of Istanbul," he wrote.

"It's true that Israel occupied territory, but Turkey is also holding occupied territory. It's true that Israel has violated U.N. resolutions, but Turkey has ignored dozens of such resolutions. It's true that Israel is far from perfect, but don't tempt us to mention all of Turkey's crimes," he wrote.

Some Turkish media reported that Peres apologized to Erdogan in a telephone call after the spat.

But Peres spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch said Peres did not apologize and that Erdogan told Peres that he left the stage because he was not allowed to respond by the moderator, and that he had nothing against Israel and considered Peres to be a close friend.

Peres responded, "I also consider you a close friend, and we will continue to work together," according to Frisch.

Praise won in Gaza
Erdogan won praise from Gazans. In the Gaza refugee camp of Jebaliya, Turkish flags decorated the ruins of a local mosque that was destroyed during Israel's war against Gaza's Hamas rulers.

A preacher told worshippers at an outdoor service Friday that Erdogan "raised the head of the Islamic nation." Jalal Bin Yousef al-Sharifi called on other Muslim leaders to do the same.

During his Friday prayer sermon in Tehran, influential Iranian cleric Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani applauded Erdogan's action, saying "Mr. Erdogan made a very good move."

Turkey has a close military relationship with Israel. The Turkish military, which suspects Erdogan's Islamic-oriented government seeks to undermine Turkey's secular principles and has sparred with it in the past, indicated its ties with Israel would not immediately change.

"The rule is to act according to national interests in bilateral military relations with all countries," Brig. Gen. Metin Gurak, the military spokesman, said Friday in response to a question on the possibility of cutting military ties.

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