BRUSSELS - Hürriyet Daily News
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Will what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said about the delay of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s trip to Gaza change his travel schedule? This was the question the journalist
asked Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu
on board the night plane carrying them to Brussels for a NATO
meeting on Syria the next day, April 23. Davutoğlu’s answer was a simple “No.”
“The main parameter of Erdoğan’s visit to Gaza is not what Kerry said,” Davutoğlu carried on. “It is the reconciliation talks between the Palestinians.” If the two rival Palestinian factions – Fatah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas lead by Khaled Mashaal – would come to an agreement in talks expected early in May in Egypt, the current picture will change as Ankara
believes. “If the Palestinians agree, it may be possible [for Erdoğan] to go to Gaza with Abbas,” Davutoğlu said. So that is Erdoğan’s formula for his Gaza trip, which has great symbolic importance for his foreign policy especially in the Middle East. “We have been talking about this both with Abbas and Mashaal,” Davutoğlu added.
The power base of Abbas is the West Bank and Mashaal’s is Gaza, which has been under Israeli embargo since 2006, the reason being shown as rocket attacks from there on Israeli towns. Israeli military operations on Gaza, which caused civilian losses of life caused Erdoğan’s outburst during the Davos meetings in 2009, the famous “one minute” incident with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Relations further deteriorated when Israeli commandoes killed nine Turks on board the Mavi Marmara boat carrying goods to Gaza, to break the embargo, and they hit bottom when the talks regarding an Israeli apology (and compensation for the victims’ families) collapsed in 2011.
The picture started to change in the second term of U.S. President Barack Obama. His secretary of state and Middle East coordinator, Phil Gordon, behind the curtain gave a special emphasis on the Palestinian-Israeli peace, as the source of many problems in the region.
Right after another crisis sparked by Erdoğan’s remarks on Zionism in late February, Obama managed to convince Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the last hour of his visit to the country (his first visit abroad in his second term) on March 22 to phone Erdoğan and apologize for the attack.
Erdoğan’s visit to Gaza, as a symbol of his determination despite Israel’s never-step-back attitude so far, came to the agenda right after the apology.
Kerry said during an April 21 press conference in Istanbul that the U.S. was for the delay of Erdoğan’s visit to Gaza until conditions were suitable regarding the Middle East peace process. Actually he had expressed concern about the Gaza trip during his second visit to Turkey, but behind closed doors, not publicly, only two weeks ago on April 7, since he assumed office.
A week after that, on April 14, Erdoğan announced that he was planning to go to Gaza by the end of May and that was interpreted as a reconciliatory move by him, because what he had been planning before was to go to Gaza before his meeting with Obama in the White House possibly on May 16. And yesterday, Erdoğan insisted on his trip and said he will not postpone it. Underlying how Turkish and American
diplomacy managed to turn a major crisis into an opportunity to improve relations, putting Turkey back on the stage of the Middle East process, Davutoğlu says the Americans will give Erdoğan an “almost” presidential ceremony and Obama will spend almost a day with the Turkish premier.
If not to give Erdoğan an opportunity to be the leader defying an American
request, Kerry’s remarks, which caused Ankara
to react, might mean a further delay of the visit.
But Davutoğlu was crystal clear about the Palestinian reconciliation. If any agreement between Abbas and Mashaal is secured, if Mashaal will agree to host Abbas with Erdoğan, then the three of them might get into the territory from Refah gate with Egypt, without stepping onto Israeli soil. That could be a game-changer move by Erdoğan, and if he also secures the “right to exist” of Israel
from the Hamas leader, that would please not only the U.S. administration but many others from Russia
to the European Union.
On Israeli relations, Ankara
is determined to move forward step by step. Davutoğlu was quite upset, for example because of a Sunday Times story about the possibility of a military base bargain between Israel
and Turkey together with the compensation talks. The Foreign Ministry categorically denied that, denouncing the report as a “manipulation attempt.”
The first round of talks in Ankara
on April 22 with an Israeli delegation on compensation issues ended with consensus on the update of a text that had been agreed upon in 2011, before the dialogue collapsed without securing that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu would not like to go any further. But before meeting with Obama, Erdoğan might take some other steps for bettering of relations with Israel, such us upgrading diplomatic relations back into the ambassadorial level.