Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to a hero's welcome in Istanbul on Friday, a day after he and Israel's President Shimon Peres shocked the World Economic Forum as a debate on the Middle East heated up and the leaders raised their voices and traded accusations over the recent assault on Gaza.
In some of the most dramatic moments seen at the normally restrained Davos meetings, Erdogan stormed out in front of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Arab League chief Amr Moussa and other panel members complaining that he was not allowed by the moderator to respond to accusations made by Peres.
Pointed fingers, raised voices
The argument erupted after Peres, criticized by Ban and Moussa, launched an aggressive defense of his country's 23-day assault on Gaza and with a raised voice and pointed finger, questioned what Erdogan would do if rockets were fired at Istanbul every night.
"Why did they fire rockets? There was no siege against Gaza," Peres said, his voice rising. "Why did they fight us? What did they want? There was never a day of starvation in Gaza."
"What would you do if you were to have in Istanbul every night a hundred rockets?" Peres shouted.
The audience of international officials and corporate chiefs applauded Peres's emotional defense of an assault that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead, a move that Erdogan criticized.
"I find it very sad that people applaud what you have said because many people have been killed," he said to Peres.
As Erdogan tried to continue with his response to Peres, the moderator, Washington Post journalist David Ignatius, repeatedly interrupted him saying it was time for dinner.
"We can't start the debate again we just don't have time," Ignatius said, interrupting the Turkish premier.
"The president [Peres] spoke for 25 minutes. I have only spoken for half of that," Erdogan fumed.
"I don't think I will come back to Davos because you don't let me speak," the Turkish prime minister said, as he stood up and walked out of the conference hall in the Swiss ski resort.
"President Peres you are older than I am. Maybe you are feeling guilty and that is why you are so strong in your words. You killed people. I remember the children who died on beaches," Erdogan said before storming out.
Erdogan returned to Istanbul where he received a hero's welcome as thousands of people waving Turkish and Palestinian flags turned out to greet the prime minister's plane.
"I only know that I have to protect the honor of Turkey and Turkish people," Erdogan said to cheering crowds.
"I am not a chief of a tribe. I am the prime minister of Turkey. I have to do what I have to do."
Earlier, in a hastily-called news conference, Erdogan explained that he had been upset with both the moderation of the debate and Peres's manner.
"My reaction was directed at the moderator. I think that if we have moderation in this way, we won't really get out of Davos what we all come here to get out of Davos, and it would cast a shadow over efforts to reach peace," Erdogan said.
"President Peres was speaking to the prime minister of Turkey -- I am not just some leader of some group or tribe, so he should have addressed me accordingly," he told reporters.
Erdogan and Peres spoke by telephone after the debate and the 85-year-old Israeli president apologized for the events, Turkey's Anatolia news agency reported, which the Israeli presidency later denied but said Peres had called Erdogan and the two leaders had "a friendly conversation."
Erdogan, who leads one of the few Muslim countries to have diplomatic relations with Israel and who has sought a peacemaker's role in the Middle East conflict, said although he thought Israel had carried out "barbarian" actions in Gaza, he was not anti-Semitic.
"I am a leader in this world who says that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity. I said this the very first day I became prime minister and before that as well," Erdogan said defending himself against criticism made by Jewish groups.
As the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas hailed Erdogan's move, Peres told reporters he hoped the heated exchange would not affect relations between the two countries.
"We don't want conflict with Turkey. We are in a conflict with the Palestinians," Peres told reporters at the annual gathering in Davos.
Meanwhile Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhum, said: "Hamas pays tribute to the courageous stand of Turkey's prime minister ... who in Davos directly defended the victims of the criminal Zionist war against our children and women in Gaza."
"We consider his departure from the room an expression of support for the victims of the Holocaust carried out by the Zionists," he said in a statement.
Analysts have suggested Peres lost his temper because he felt Israel was being criticized by the international community.
Before Erdogan stormed out, Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister who now leads the Arab League, also took Peres to task during the debate for the treatment of the Palestinians.
"You strangle them, you starve them and you ask them to be quiet," Moussa said.
The U.N. secretary-general had also called on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, for Hamas to end its violence and renewed Arab efforts to bring together divided Palestinian groups.
Moussa later said he thought Erdogan's action was understandable.
"Mr. Ergodan said what he wanted to say and then he left. That's all. He was right." Of Israel, he said, "They don't listen."