15 FEBRUARY 2009


Many bored participants in a Davos debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict were politely deserting the hall as its moderator David Ignatius behaved as if he was more important than the distinguished participants that included the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

While politicians keen on their good name in the U.S. capital tend to placate the American/Armenian Ignatius because of his links with the Washington Post, Turkey's very popular Prime Minister was particularly wary of that "diva" attitude. Yet he tried to be correct. "We are not running a grocery store, we're leading the government of Turkey," he had told Istanbul parliamentarians in Istanbul before traveling briefly to the Swiss Alps. Besides, he knows Mr. Peres well as the two countries shared a number of interests and, of course, he is a good friend of Mr. Moussa. He thought it was imperative for him to respond after a 25-minute long statement by the Israeli leader on the situation in Gaza. He requested to make a brief reply. Pompous Ignatius, eyebrows raised, icily ruled: "Only one minute." As the Prime Minister -- who obviously has a public beyond those gathered by Dr. Schwab -- started to respond, Ignatius interrupted: "We can't start the debate now; we just don't have time."

Erdogan: Please let me finish

Ignatius (interrupting again): We really do need to get people to dinner!

What a bungled excuse. A discussion on the destitute destruction of Gaza with civilians on all sides killed, children burying their parents, dead people not even finding adequate tomb space, while David Ignatius is merely keen on ensuring that dignitaries in a winter resort get to the dinner table exactly on time. He at least should have been sensitive to the fact that he was addressing a Prime Minister of a leading Islamic country along with one President and two Secretaries General. Indeed, as an American of Armenian descent, he should have been careful not only how to handle a Turkish leader but also to remember that the Armenian people, one of the most enterprising and dynamic in the world, had been innocent victims of violent conflict -- and not only by the Turks.

The rest is known. As Mr. Erdogen walked out, vowing never to return to Davos again, he suddenly gripped the headlines and editorials of Arab and Moslem media, which, in comparison, slammed Amr Moussa for staying and not following suit. The media-savvy Egyptian leaked that Ban Ki-moon held his hand, suggested he stay; so he did out of courtesy. Poor Mr. Ban. Doomed if he did; doomed if he didn't.

The worrying part came later. Already, in the conference, as elsewhere, grew a conspiracy theory that Armenians had attempted to humiliate Turkey's Prime Minister, who responded by defending his country's dignity. Instead of planting the seeds of understanding among cultures, as is usually one of the claimed purposes of such gatherings, there were grounds for a further split.

What is clear is that David Ignatius was not acting on behalf of Armenians in supporting one side versus another. He was merely an incompetent moderator. What is not clear is why Professor Schwab, the sharp entrepreneur who placed Davos on the map, decided on a vulnerable average reporter for that delicate moderating task. He probably thought of the Washington Post impact, not realizing Ignatius' background or limitations. He may have witnessed the excellent example of Fareed Zakaria, of CNN and Newsweek, who brilliantly moderated, then covered with confident ease and professional competence an equally delicate debate on the pressing financial crisis with political heavyweights like the Prime Minister of the U.K., and the Presidents of Mexico and South Korea. But, then, the difference is obvious: Zakaria is a genuine original thinker, not just a networker in a rush to get to dinner on time.