Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s controversial visit to Gaza is on the agenda again, and may even take place within the next week, according to a senior Hamas official, despite opposition from Israel, the United States and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Meanwhile, the United States' brokered effort to normalize ties between Turkey and Israel is in the doldrums again, with Israeli officials complaining of being “humiliated” by Ankara.
Some Western diplomats are pointing to the fact that local, presidential and general elections in Turkey are not far down the road, and linking Erdogan’s position on Hamas and Israel to the recent nationwide anti-government demonstrations in Turkey. They argue that his populist tendencies are becoming prominent again in view of these demonstrations.
“Erdogan clearly feels he has to act according to the sentiments of his Islamist supporters who revere Hamas and abhor Israel as a matter of course,” according to one such diplomat talking to Al-Monitor. “This makes a visit to Gaza necessary and improved ties with Israel a liability.”
Meanwhile, Hamas has also been increasing pressure on Erdogan to visit Gaza as soon as possible. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas administration in Gaza, and the group’s exiled leader Khaled Meshaal were in Ankara last week for talks which also included working out the details of this visit, according to Agence France-Presse on June 27. Abdelsalam Siyyam, secretary-general of the Hamas government, told the pro-Hamas daily Falestin that Erdogan’s visit would take place on July 5, AFP said in its report from Gaza City.
Indicating that a Turkish delegation was in Gaza to meet with Haniyeh and other Hamas officials to look into the details of the visit, AFP quoted Siyyam saying, "They informed us about the timing of the visit." On June 25, Erdogan told reporters — following an address to his parliamentary group in Ankara — that “the Gaza trip is ready to go ahead.” He added that there could be “a surprise development at any moment.”
Turkish daily Hurriyet reported on June 28 that a team comprising of officials from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and the prime minister’s Public Diplomacy Directorate, who are currently in Gaza, told Hamas officials to be ready for Erdogan’s visit on July 5. Hurriyet added that Erdogan’s intention is to be in Gaza for Friday prayers.
However, a day before the Hurriyet article, AFP had updated its initial report by quoting Erdogan’s press secretary who disputed this date. “The prime minister has other scheduled programs in Turkey around those dates. The visit will take place, but its date has not yet been decided," he said.
Hamas has made it amply clear that it wants to host Erdogan in Gaza to bolster its own position at a time when Washington is trying to restart the Middle East peace process, in which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’ bitter rival, is representing the Palestinian side. According to CNN Turk, Haniyeh told a group of visiting Turkish journalists in Gaza on June 26, “Erdogan’s visit will be a historic one, and the whole world will see how we display our gratitude." Such remarks are also bound to be enticing for Erdogan.
But Washington remains opposed to this visit. US Secretary of State John Kerry angered Ankara in April by asking Erdogan to delay going to Gaza. “The timing of it is really critical with respect to the peace process that we’re trying to get off the ground,” Kerry, who was in Istanbul for a meeting on Syria, said. “We would like to see the parties begin with as little outside distraction as possible.”
Abbas is also against Erdogan’s Gaza visit, a fact that creates more complications for Ankara than the Israeli or US opposition to the visit, since it could leave Turkey deepening the division between Palestinians. PA officials have said on a number of occasions that such a visit will hamper ongoing efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah.
Addressing a joint press conference with US President Barack Obama in Washington on May 16, Erdogan, who was in Washington for official talks, argued that his Gaza visit would contribute to peace and unity in Palestine. “I place a lot of significance on this visit in terms of peace in the Middle East, and this visit in no way means favoring one or the other,” Erdogan said, indicating that he would not only visit Gaza but also the West Bank.
Despite these remarks, Erdogan’s proposed point of entry into Gaza is a continuing matter of debate, with press reports suggesting now that he will enter from Egypt through the Rafah border crossing. If true, this will fuel the controversy surrounding Erdogan’s visit further. It may also upset Egypt, since it would upstage President Mohammed Morsi, who has not visited Gaza yet.
There have been suggestions, also encouraged by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, that a possible formula for all sides to win would be an entry into Gaza by Erdogan during a visit to Israel. This could also include a visit to the West Bank, from where Erdogan could go to Gaza together with Abbas, thus contributing to Palestinian reconciliation.
This, however, is an unlikely scenario when efforts aimed at normalizing Turkish-Israeli ties are stalled. Despite the Israeli apology for the raid by Israeli commandos on the Mavi Marmara aid ship in May 2010, during which nine Turkish activists were killed, Israel maintains that Ankara has still not fulfilled its part of the bargain brokered by Washington, according to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth on June 26.
Unidentified “senior Israeli officials” told the paper that Turkey's conduct was “humiliating and disrespectful.” Citing these officials, the paper claimed that Ankara had turned the negotiations for the compensation Israel has agreed to pay for the Turks killed in the Mavi Marmara raid into “a regular Turkish bazaar.”
Yedioth Ahronoth also claimed Ankara was reneging on its promise to prevent the cases opened in Turkey against the Israeli soldiers who raided the Mavi Marmara, including former chief of staff Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. Citing unidentified Turks, it said Erdogan cannot act to stop the legal proceedings while anti-government protests are taking place in Turkey, “because he does not want his constituents to view him as being pro-Israeli.”
The paper quoted a senior Israeli official who said, "After they fed us smelly fish and ran us out of town, it's time that the Turks pay a price for their nasty behavior." If this is a true reflection of sentiments on the Israeli side, it is clear, when combined with the lack of urgency that Ankara is approaching the reconciliation despite pressure from Washington, that normalization of Turkish-Israeli ties may not happen anytime soon.
The Western diplomat Al-Monitor talked to, who sees a link between what he calls the foot-dragging by Erdogan on normalizing ties with Israel and the Gezi Park protests, also suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s formal apology over the Mavi Marmara incident “was an unexpected and inconvenient development for Erdogan, who is seeking a way out of this now.” He maintained that Erdogan’s Islamist outlook makes him “instinctively anti-Israeli.”
It does in fact look like Erdogan’s Islam-driven ideological orientation may once again be trumping what was Turkey’s cautiously neutral approach to Middle East crises before Erdogan's Justice and Development Party came to power. It is arguable, however, whether this approach to delicate foreign policy issues has contributed to Turkey’s regional influence, regardless of what Erdogan’s supporters may claim, and despite the reverence radical Islamist groups like Hamas feel for him.
Semih Idiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.
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