Palestinian reconciliation more important than Erdoğan’s Gaza visit

Palestinian reconciliation more important than Erdoğan’s Gaza visit

Ankara’s angry reaction to remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urging Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to postpone his Gaza visit at the end of May is actually another reflection of how domestic politics has spread into Turkey’s foreign policy domain.

After all, Kerry is not the only one urging Ankara to postpone the visit. Officials from the Palestinian Authority (PA) attached to President Mahmoud Abbas have also come out urging the same thing, on the grounds that this visit at a sensitive moment in PA-Hamas ties would be divisive for the Palestinians.

It is an open question if Ankara would have reacted in the same way if President Abbas had said this openly during his visit to Turkey over the weekend, in the same way that Kerry did in Istanbul just before him. The bet is that the response would have been milder and less - if at all - “reprimanding.”

But coming from a senior U.S. official, the government of a country like Turkey - where anti-Americanism has always been high - could not afford to brush Kerry’s remark aside, because of the way this could have been used against it by domestic rivals.

This, then, is the context in which the words of Deputy Prime Minister and Government Spokesman Bulent Arınç should be taken, when he said: “Only our government decides where and when our prime minister or another Turkish official will go. It is not in a position to seek the permission or acceptance of any authority.”
Arınç’s remarks – which had to be made to for domestic consumption - will of course not change a thing in terms of Turkish-U.S. ties, which have already these past few months weathered worse storms. The American side, on the other hand, should be aware of Turkish sensitivities by now, so Kerry’s public remarks about Erdoğan’s proposed Gaza visit can still be taken as a diplomatic gaffe by Washington.

This, however, is an academic debate at this stage. What is relevant is that there is some validity to the concern that Washington and the PA are expressing about an untimely visit by Erdoğan to Gaza. It appears that Foreign Minister Davutoğlu is also aware of the sensitivity of the issue, if we are to judge by his remarks quoted by Hürriyet Daily News editor-in-chief Murat Yetkin yesterday.

“The main parameter of Erdoğan’s visit to Gaza is not what Kerry said,” Davutoğlu, whose ministry is now also engaged in the normalization process with Israel, was quoted as saying. “It is the reconciliation talks between the Palestinians … If the Palestinians agree, it may be possible [for Erdoğan] to go to Gaza with Abbas” he said, going on to indicate that Ankara had been discussing the matter with President Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

Davutoglu’s remarks are realistic and point to the real issue here, which is the reconciliation between the two estranged Palestinian camps, in order for them to enter the Middle East peace process in a unified manner.
Erdogan’s Islamist sympathies may be driving his desire to visit Gaza. He is no doubt aware that such a visit will be splashed across papers in the region, which would not be bad for his public image in the Middle East, especially when many Islamists are looking at Ankara’s reconciliation process with Israel with suspicion.

This, however, is the moment when Erdoğan must decide if he wants Turkey to be a major player in the Middle East, or appear to be a country that is supporting factionalism among Muslim entities. Contrary to what Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are saying, Turkey has actually lost ground in terms of its presence in all the major political processes involving the region, as it has lost its traditional neutrality on many key issues.

If Turkey wants to regain its influence, it is clear that this will not come about by being a spoiler because of the ruling party’s Islamist sympathies. It will only come about if Turkey is once again an impartial country with open channels to all concerned parties.

The bottom line here is that Palestinian reconciliation is much more important at this stage than Erdogan’s Gaza visit.