WEF hosts Turkish leaderCHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated PressThe Associated Press
ISTANBUL -- Turkey's leader on Tuesday delivered a keynote speech at a regional meeting of the World Economic Forum, more than three years after he stormed off the stage at a previous meeting in Davos, Switzerland during a debate with the Israeli president _ an event that signaled the rising profile of Turkey in its turbulent region.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hailed as a hero by many in the Middle East after the 2009 confrontation, opened the conference in Istanbul with an address that highlighted Turkey's development in the past decade, but also touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the way in which he said it had destabilized the region. Without mentioning Israel _ once a firm ally of Turkey _ he said Palestinians suffered bombardment and mass killing and were kept in "the largest open-air prison in the world."
As a result, Erdogan said, "The whole region is faced with a lot of anger being pumped into it."
Mahmoud Abbas, the Western-backed Palestinian president who rules the West Bank _ one of two territories Palestinians claim for a future state _ followed Erdogan at the podium, sharply criticizing Israel for the deadlocked peace process, and touting his administration's efforts to lay the economic and legal foundations for a modern state. Islamic militant group Hamas runs the second of the territories, the Gaza Strip, though the rival Palestinian factions hope to hold elections to end their five-year rift and present a united front on the long-running conflict with Israel.
"Today we are neither at war nor at peace (with Israel)," Abbas said. "This condition could extend for decades."
The World Economic Forum holds its main, annual meeting in Davos. Erdogan said he would not return there after the 2009 dispute with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who had passionately defended a three-week offensive against Hamas militants, launched in reaction to eight years of rocket fire aimed at Israeli territory.
"You kill people," Erdogan told Peres. The Turkish leader was also angered when the moderator, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, tried to cut short his remarks. Erdogan was greeted by a jubilant crowd at the airport on his return to Turkey, a NATO member with a mostly Muslim population. His regional popularity enhanced the profile of a country that had benefited from strong economic growth and a democratic reform program aimed at securing entry into the European Union.
At the same time, the episode undermined Turkey's efforts to play a mediator's role because it lost the semblance of neutrality it had enjoyed as a facilitator in talks between Israel and Syria. Ties with Israel deteriorated further, particularly after a deadly Israeli raid in 2010 on a Turkish aid boat trying to break Israeli's blockade of Gaza. Turkey has since ended its alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad, demanding that he step down because of his bloody crackdown on a national uprising.
In his Istanbul speech, Erdogan described Turkey, which has forced the military out of politics but still faces internal challenges such as a Kurdish rebellion, as "an island of stability in a region that is surrounded by major difficulties."
In introductory remarks, Klaus Schwab, the head of the World Economic Forum, placed special emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at a time when the world is concerned about the possibility another global economic downturn.
"It's a special pleasure to welcome you today," he said to Erdogan before turning to the Palestinian question. "We are all very eager to hear from you. Is there any hope that this problem will be solved soon?"
Peres did not attend the Istanbul meeting, though Ignatius was there as a moderator of a panel on urbanization and growth. Borge Brende, a managing director of the World Economic Forum, said he was pleased to see Israeli business executives and analysts at the meeting, which is aimed at, according to a slogan, "improving the state of the world."
"When it comes to interaction on head of government, or head of state level between Israel and Turkey, I think this is something that has to be solved and dealt with bilaterally between the two countries," he said.