Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stalked off the stage yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland after sparring with President Shimon Peres over the fighting in Gaza. The incident occurred hours after a Spanish investigative judge decided to open a criminal investigation into seven Israeli officers and government officials who were involved in the assassination of Hamas master terrorist Salah Shehadeh in July 2002.
In addition to Shehadeh, the operation killed 14 civilians. Therefore, Judge Fernando Andreu declared, it might constitute a crime against humanity. In Davos, Peres and Erdogan engaged in a lengthy debate about the Gaza operation, during which both men raised their voices and shouted - highly unusual behavior at this elite gathering. "You are killing people," Erdogan told Peres at one point. But as the session was ending, Erdogan asked the moderator, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, to let him speak once more.
"I remember two former prime ministers in your country who said they felt very happy when they were able to enter Palestine on tanks," Erdogan then told Peres, speaking in Turkish. "I find it very sad that people applaud what you said. There have been many people killed. And I think that it is very wrong and it is not humanitarian."
Ignatius interjected, "We can't start the debate again. We just don't have time."
"Please let me finish," Erdogan urged, but Ignatius responded, "we really do need to get people to dinner."
The Turkish premier then said, "Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. I don't think I will come back to Davos after this" - and left the podium.
The packed audience at the Erdogan-Peres session appeared stunned.
"I have known Shimon Peres for many years and I also know Erdogan," said former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik. "I have never seen Shimon Peres so passionate as he was today. I think he felt Israel was being attacked by so many in the international community. He felt isolated."
"I was very sad that Erdogan left," he added. "This was an expression of how difficult this situation is."
In Spain, Judge Andreu's writ named seven Israelis as suspects: then defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who is currently national infrastructure minister; then Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon; then air force commander Dan Halutz; then GOC Southern Command Giora Eiland; Dorog Almog, who headed the national security staff at the time; Mike Herzog, then Ben-Eliezer's military secretary; and Avi Dichter, then head of the Shin Bet security service, who is today public security minister. However, the writ did not request their arrest.
Andreu also wrote to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority requesting permission to send Spanish police investigators to the Gaza Strip to pursue the probe.
Although Spain has no connection to the case, it is one of several European countries that claim universal jurisdiction. As a result, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights chose Spain as a suitable venue for filing a criminal complaint, and yesterday, Andreu acceded to its request that he launch an investigation.
In his decision, Andreu wrote that dropping a bomb "on one of the most crowded neighborhoods in Gaza" was potentially a crime against humanity. The use of a one-ton bomb was "exaggerated and disproportionate," he added, and the IDF "was aware of ramifications of the bombing."
Several of the current and former officers named in the writ expressed bitterness at the state's handling of the incident, and particularly blamed the Justice Ministry.
"Had the State of Israel dealt with Spain's request eight months ago with the requisite seriousness, the requisite speed and at a high enough level, we might never have come to this decision," said one person involved in the affair. He was referring to a letter Andreu sent in August 2008, in which he asked Israel for additional information about the assassination.
A few months ago, the Justice Ministry did warn all the officers involved to avoid traveling to Spain. Now, however, they may also need to avoid any country with which Spain has an extradition treaty.
In response to the decision, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos promised his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, that he would make every effort to convince the judge to reverse his decision. However, he noted, the Spanish judiciary is completely independent, so there is no guarantee that Andreu will accede to this request.
Livni also directed the Israeli embassy in Madrid to ask the judge to cancel the investigation. The embassy will submit its request today.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak termed Andreu's decision "delusional," adding: "Anyone who calls the liquidation of a terrorist a 'crime against humanity' is living in an upside-down world."
Ben-Eliezer termed it "ridiculous and outrageous," adding: "I don't regret the [assassination] decision. Salah Shehadeh was an arch-murderer. Had we not assassinated him, he would have continued carrying out terror attacks."
The assassination was postponed three times because civilians were known to be in Shehadeh's vicinity, he noted, and when it was finally approved, it was because there was no information indicating that civilians were present at the time.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened yesterday to kidnap more Israelis, claiming that Israel has not yet returned the bodies of 350 Lebanese and Palestinians living in Lebanon, and therefore, "the file is still open."
He also once again blamed Israel for last year's assassination of his organization's operations officer, Imad Mughniyeh, and vowed revenge.
In 2006, Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers sparked the Second Lebanon War.
Also yesterday, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh urged U.S. President Barack Obama to change America's traditionally pro-Israel approach to the Middle East.