Why Erdoğan’s visit to Gaza Should be a multi-leg one

Why Erdoğan’s visit to Gaza Should be a multi-leg one

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s scheduled visit to Gaza in May, if mishandled, has a good chance of turning into another blunder in Turkish-Israeli relations. However, if planed wisely, it could serve as an opportunity for a fresh start in this relationship, and in general contribute to the stability of the region. In order for this more positive scenario to occur, Erdoğan may want to plan a multi-leg trip; beginning in Tel Aviv, moving on to Ramallah and ending in Gaza City. If such a visit seems premature for the current state of affairs between Israel and Turkey, perhaps Erdoğan’s plans should be delayed for a while. A visit only to Gaza at this stage might prove to be counterproductive in the long run.

The first stop on his trip should be Tel Aviv. For technical reasons, this would be the most convenient route. It should also be mentioned that in the past Egypt has been less than enthusiastic about the possibility of Erdoğan visiting Gaza by passing through Egypt. Moreover, The Israeli public is also looking for some reaffirmation that relations with Turkey will in due time return to course and that Turkey will declare once more that it accepts the legitimacy of the existence of the state of Israel within the pre-1967 borders. If it still seems premature for Turkey to return its ambassador to Tel Aviv, Erdoğan could at least use his visit to inaugurate the Turkish cultural center that is in the beautifully renovated Saraya building in Jaffa. Turkey has invested a large sum of money and much thought into renovating this building from the Ottoman time, but it has not yet been opened to the public due to the strain in relations.

The second stop should be Ramallah. Turkey takes pride in being one of the leading actors that pushed for the UN General Assembly recognition of the Palestinian state. As such, it would be natural for Erdoğan to pay respect to Mahmoud Abbas and give him the honor of being the first Palestinian leader he greets during this visit. Such a step would also show that Turkey is truly committed to its attempts to bring about a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas, and to the general cause of the two-state solution. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been publicly optimistic that a reconciliation deal might be reached before Erdoğan’s planned visit in May. While this may be an exit–strategy for delaying the visit in case such an agreement is not reached, a better pro-active diplomatic approach would be, instead of waiting for reconciliation to happen, to conduct a multi-leg visit to encourage it.

The third and final stop would be Gaza city. For some time, Turkey has seen the problem of Gaza as a unique one, and has wanted to raise awareness of the difficult situation of the population there. Turkey also believes that there can be no viable solution to the Palestinian problem without the involvement of Hamas, and that involving Hamas in negotiations will also benefit Israel. Turkish support of the people in Gaza also has a practical dimension. For example, Turkey is now building a hospital in Gaza; this is in line with its humanitarian policy elsewhere such as the hospital it just finished building in Somalia. The fact that the visit to Gaza will be part of the multi-leg trip will shut up the critics who say that Turkey’s policy toward Gaza is only aimed at provoking Israel and raising the popularity of Erdoğan in the Arab World. Such a multi-leg visit would reflect the multi-dimensional nature of Turkish foreign policy and would show that Turkey can serve as a truly constructive player in pushing forward a solution to the Palestinian problem. Such a multi-leg itinerary most likely would also be seen favorably by United States’ President Barack Obama; this may ensure that Obama and Erdoğan’s scheduled meeting in Washington in mid-May gets off to a good start.

*Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. Berkay Gülen holds her MSc from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.