The conceit of every autocratic leader is that power fits comfortably upon his shoulders. Even if he has not been chosen directly by his people, his right to rule reflects a natural order.
The World Economic Forum at Davos, with all its trappings of civility and reflective sophistication, embodies the same conceit. This is the forum of world governance that repeatedly unwittingly exposes the chasm dividing the world from its leaders.
Yesterday’s session, “Gaza: the case for Middle East peace,” was a pivotal moment in political discourse between the West and the rest of the world. The self-righteous hubris of an enraged Israeli president collided with the outrage of those who refused to ignore his bloodied hands.
To fully understand what happened, watch the one-hour eight-minute discussion. (For readers who want to fast forward to the part where Shimon Peres starts venting his rage, drag the play marker across to 45 minutes 50 seconds.)
“Why did they fire at us? What did they want? We didn’t occupy. There was never a day of starvation in Gaza. By the way, Israel is the supplier of water daily to Gaza. Israel is the supplier of fuel to Gaza.”
Right now, the press has much less interest in exposing Peres’ lies than it has in the headline-grabbing moment — the point at which Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan left the stage in reaction to the insulting behavior of the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius.
The real story — the story that an obsequious press corps has chosen to under-report — was a tirade from Shimon Peres that should rank on a par with Nikita Kruschev’s outburst at the United Nations in 1960 when he pounded his shoe in protest.
Never has the word “peace” been spewed out with such venom as when Peres thundered, “Our aim is peace, not war.”
Yet in response, the bias of opinion inside the hall was quickly exposed. Even though fellow panels members were visibly shocked by the Israeli’s unfettered anger, once Peres had finished his verbal assault on anyone who might dispute Israel’s version of reality, he instantly received a warm round of applause.
Up to that moment, it seems possible that Erdogan might have been willing to allow a potentially impartial audience to form its own judgment, but since Peres’s outburst had not only repeatedly been directed with utter contempt at Turkey’s prime minister but apparently received broad approval among the Davos elite, he felt compelled to respond.
David Igantius reluctantly acquiesced, giving him one minute — but Erdogan exceeded his time. The moderator with taps on the prime minister’s shoulder insisted that, “with apologies, we really do need to get people to dinner.”
Turkey is currently in a position to play a vital, perhaps indispensable role in Middle East peace mediation but a columnist for the Washington Post takes it upon himself to cut short the prime minister’s remarks because the illustrious Davos crowd will be late for dinner!
Had Peres not been given the central seat and had he been sitting right next to Ignatius and had he exceeded his time, would the hack from Washington have had the audacity to try and shut up Israel’s president? It’s hardly likely. Ignatius would have shown due respect to a man whose authority he would never dream of questioning.
Erdogan’s choice to walk off the stage was simply a refusal to accept an insult. As a result he received a hero’s welcome on his return to Turkey.
Beyond the passion of the moment, the incident exposes the hypocrisy that is embedded in the West’s view of the rest of the world.
If Hugo Chavez, or Muammar al-Gaddafi, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or any other non-Western leader had spoken with the vulgarity, deceitfulness and rage that Shimon Peres displayed, the universal response would have been that this was unbecoming and unacceptable behavior for a political leader on a world stage.
The conceit of Western civilization (within which Israel sees itself embedded and by which Israel is treated as a full participant) is that it has nothing to learn from the dignity of others.
As the self-appointed custodians of civilization we fail to see the degree to which dignity is something we often lack, while so many of those we look down upon regard respectful, dignified behavior as a fundamental mark of humanity. Commensurate with the loss of our dignity has been the rise of our arrogance.
If Israel wants to understand why it is currently viewed with contempt by so much of the world, it should not only consider the misery it has inflicted on millions of Palestinians; it should also consider why it takes pride in having as its preeminent emissary a man who acts like a thug.