Erdoğan will go to Gaza, but how?
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s second visit to Turkey in almost one month seems to be focusing on the Middle East Peace process. Especially after the Israeli apology to Turkey, made possible by the U.S., the White House believes that Turkey should be included back in the peace process alongside Egypt, but with a more active role considering its apparently persuasive influence over the Hamas regime in Gaza.
After accepting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology for the killing of nine Turks on their way to Gaza in 2010, thanks to the personal mediation of U.S. President Barack Obama, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has added a Gaza visit to his travel plans, in order to make the point that Turkey will not allow the Palestinians to live in isolation.
It will certainly be flattering for Khaled Meshaal, the re-elected leader of Hamas, to host Erdoğan there. But it will possibly be not so pleasant for Mahmoud Abbas, as the Fatah President of the Palestinian state divided into two between Gaza and Ramallah, the West Bank. Right after the apology, a Jerusalem Post story quoted an unnamed Palestinian official in Ramallah saying that Fatah would not be happy about a visit by Erdoğan to Gaza only. The story was denied by the Palestinian Embassy in Ankara, but the point was taken. Ankara knows very clearly that media operations are a part of active diplomacy nowadays, as was demonstrated in the case of Erdoğan’s interview in the Politiken newspaper in Denmark on March 21, answering a question on his previous “Zionism” remarks, just a day before Israel’s apology. Sources told the Hürriyet Daily News that the Politiken interview had been carefully arranged through American, Turkish, Danish and Israeli diplomatic channels, in order to help Obama find a way to make Netanyahu aplogize and Erdoğan accept it. The Jerusalem Post story, like Politiken, could well be another example to aid diplomacy.
During the recent Arab League summit in Doha on March 26-27, Abbas casually asked a question to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu about whether Erdoğan would visit Gaza, and if so, when. Davutoğlu’s reply was that no study had yet been done to clarify that, according to diplomatic sources talking to HDN. That still holds as of Friday, April 5. It is clear that Erdoğan wants to go to Gaza, and he wants to go there preferably in the second half of April or in the first half of May, before he goes to visit Obama on May 16.
On the other hand, there is a calendar and a set of circumstances that don’t make a visit to Gaza very easy. First of all, Turkey and Israel are expected to start compensation talks next week, on April 11 and 12, in Turkey, to establish the amounts to be paid to the families of the victims killed by Israeli commandoes on board the Mavi Marmara boat. Then, proceedings to upgrade diplomatic relations back to the level of appointing reciprocal ambassadors will start. That process is expected to be completed by the end of June. In the mean time, there is Erdoğan’s U.S. visit, which itself may be further complicated by Armenian initiatives in Congress, as in every April.
And there are also geographical restrictions. If Erdoğan would like to go to Gaza, without touching Israeli soil, there are only two ways: One is the Mavi Marmara route, the sea way, which is not likely. The other is the Refah border gate between Gaza and Egypt, taking the example of the Arab League that visited Gaza in November 2012; Erdoğan would then have to go to Egypt first. If he wants to include Ramallah in his visit, the option would be to travel through Israeli territory. A third option would be to visit Israel and both Palestinian territories together. That would be the easiest route, using Ben Gurion Airport as the terminal.
This option could be the most favorable, not only for the U.S., but for the Palestinians and the Israelis as well. It will be interesting diplomacy to watch.