News / Middle East

Turkish PM's Planned Gaza Trip Riles Washington

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (r) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ankara, Turkey,  April 22, 2013.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (r) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ankara, Turkey, April 22, 2013.
Dorian Jones
— A diplomatic dispute is deepening between Washington and Ankara over the Turkish prime minister's planned visit to the Gaza Strip. Ankara has rejected a public request by Washington to postpone next month's planned visit.  
 
Ankara has strongly criticized a call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to postpone a planned visit by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

Kerry warned that Erdogan’s visit could undermine his recent efforts to revitalize peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc rejected the call.

"Turkey finds it diplomatically objectionable and I want the world to know that Turkey has the power to do whatever it wishes," said Arinc.

Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of the Turkish newspaper Taraf says the Gaza visit is being driven by Turkish domestic considerations for Erdogan.

"I think this is tied in with domestic politics and his image and among Islamic supporters in the region," said Idiz. "He is walking a delicate line at the moment because clearly the grand strategic requirement [is that] he reconciles with Israel and get back on track with some Middle East [peace] process. And he has to appear to his own public opinion that he is sticking to his word and Gaza of course is one way of trying to show this."

Erdogan has good relations with the Hamas leadership that controls the Gaza Strip.

Columnist Idiz says Ankara believes it can enhance Palestinian unification efforts between Hamas and rival Fatah which controls the West Bank.

"Foreign Minister Davutoglu said the issue is not Erdogan going to Gaza but Palestinian reconciliation," he said. "There is some talk that reconciliation talks between Al Fatah and Hamas is going to speed up in the coming period. But I don’t think he would want to appear to be a spoiler in terms of Palestinian reconciliation and this is where his real difficulty is."

After months of acrimony, relations between Turkey and Israel thawed recently when Israel apologized to Turkey over the 2010 killing of nine Turks aboard an aid ship trying to break an Israeli economic embargo of the Gaza Strip.

U.S. President Barack Obama helped broker the apology during a recent visit to Israel.

The dispute over Erdogan’s visit to Gaza could overshadow his planned visit to Washington scheduled for early next month. Kerry said it could be on agenda.

"Our sense it will be more helpful to wait for the right circumstances," said Kerry. "I think the prime minister listened very graciously to that. I think he has been very thoughtful and sensitive about it. If need be, we certainly can have further conversations about it when he comes to Washington."
 
Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University says U.S. diplomatic pressure on Erdogan is expected to grow.

"Americans have another agenda," said Aktar. "They will repeat that and they will do everything to make sure he is not going there. But that won't destroy the relationship existing between the two countries. But at the end of the day, he [Erdogan] may be responsive to this call by Kerry and the Obama administration."
 
For now,  Erdogan has ruled out any change to his planned visit to Gaza.

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