Behind the Turkish Prime Minister's Outburst at Davos

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Laurent Gillieron / AP

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, left, speaks just before he leaves the stage in front of Shimon Peres, President of Israel, right, during a plenary session on Middle East peace at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dubs himself a "Kasimpasa man," he is not referring simply to the drab, otherwise unremarkable middle-class Istanbul neighborhood in which he grew up, but instead to the macho code of honor for which it is famous. Kasimpasa men are notoriously quick to anger, painfully proud and blunt in word; they're often called local cowboys. Erdogan's blustery Kasimpasa bravado accounts for much of his popularity among Turkey's conservative, male-dominated society, whose electorate last year returned him to power with 47% of the vote.

But on the global stage, machismo has its limits. When an enraged Erdogan stormed out of a panel discussion on Gaza at the World Economic Forum in Davos after clashing with Israeli President Shimon Peres, he didn't do his prospects of mediating between Israel and the Arab world much good. "Kasimpasa Attitude in Davos" read the banner headline of the mainstream Radikal daily. (See images of the streets of Istanbul.)

Erdogan's outburst followed weeks of sharp criticism of Israel's war on Gaza — a first for Turkey, traditionally an ally of Israel. "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill," Erdogan told Peres, wagging his finger. "I know very well how you hit and killed children on beaches." Later, infuriated by the moderator's refusal to allow him more time in response to Peres' emotional rebuke, the Turkish Prime Minister walked off the stage, declaring, "Davos is over for me."

At home and across the Middle East, Erdogan's performance saw him feted as a hero. Hundreds took to the streets in Gaza on Friday in support, while in Istanbul, some 5,000 supporters greeted him at the airport, waving flags and placards that read "Turkey is proud of you" and "Erdogan, a new world leader." Hamas officials praised him for his "courage," while Iran said it "hailed him for this attitude."

But the outburst may have pulled the plug on Ankara's efforts to position itself as a mediator between Israel and the Arab world. Since last May, Turkey has hosted five rounds of Israeli-Syrian peace talks — currently suspended as Israel prepares for a general election — and recently acted as a mediator between the Palestinian Hamas leadership and Egyptian officials seeking a cease-fire in Gaza.

"The most important quality of a mediator is to be able to maintain an equal distance to all parties involved," says Cuneyt Ulsever, a columnist for Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. "Erdogan's inability to control his anger is a problem. I think even Erdogan realizes that he overstepped the mark. After this outburst, it will take six months to a year for him to regain credibility as a mediator [between Israel and the Arab world]."

Erdogan may have responded with a view to boosting his domestic political position ahead of Turkey's local elections, coming up in March. Even though polls show his Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, comfortably ahead, the Prime Minister needs to expand his support base. "The stakes are high for him," says Ulsever. "Erdogan is afraid that if the AKP gets below 47%, people will see it as the beginning of the end."

Nor is the long-term alliance between Turkey and Israel likely to be affected. Peres said there was "no conflict" with Turkey, and the Turkish military confirmed Friday that a deal to buy Israeli military equipment, including pilotless drones of a type used against Hamas in Gaza, will go ahead as planned. Erdogan too appeared to take a step back on Friday, saying he did not intend to "target at all in any way the Israeli people, President Peres or the Jewish people." His outburst will not easily be forgotten in Israel nor go unnoticed by Washington, but by expressing the sentiments of the Arab streets, he will, if anything, have boosted Turkey's standing in the Arab world.