The timing of Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s long-planned Arab Spring tour covering Egypt, Tunisia and Libya carries extra significance as Ankara’s row with Israel is echoing in its North African ally Egypt
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is finally set to embark on the multi-destination North Africa and Middle East visit that has been dubbed the “Arab Spring tour” by observers, as Turkey claims a stronger say in the region with an increased role that spells regional power for the country.
Although officials last week confirmed Erdoğan's plans to visit the three countries, it appears that plans for the controversial visit to Gaza have fallen through. The premier has for months expressed his desire to go to Gaza, whose liberation from the Israeli blockade has been at the top of Erdoğan's agenda for years, but entry by a prime minister into the Gaza Strip runs a high risk of resulting in diplomatic havoc on a global scale.
In a sign signaling that the Gaza visit will actually be left out of the tour, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Sunday told reporters that Libya and Tunisia were included on the itinerary, but the visit was going to remain limited to those countries. Also commenting on Israel's increased distance with the rest of the region, Davutoğlu stated that Israel was out of touch with the region and unable to perceive the changes taking place, which makes it impossible for the country to have healthy relations with its neighbors. “Isolation is inevitable for Israel; it will be even more isolated from now on,” the minister added.
Hamas' prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, on Sunday announced preparations for the possible visit by Erdoğan to the region “as if it is certain that Prime Minister Erdoğan is coming,” in an interview with the Anatolia news agency. Haniyeh praised Turkish sanctions against Israel, calling them “a great support for the people of Palestine and the Palestinian cause.” Turkish diplomats have been holding talks with Egyptian officials to make the visit possible, but Erdoğan last week predicted that the process would continue until the last minute. The Gaza visit was also absent from the schedule for the Sept. 12-15 tour in a statement released by the prime minister's office last week.
The timing of the long-time planned Arab Spring tour carries extra significance when Turkey's row with Israel echoed its allied Middle East country of Egypt. On Saturday, crowds of Egyptian people took to the streets and trashed Israel's embassy in Cairo, forcing the embassy staff to flee the country. Although the ousting of one of the last two remaining Israeli embassies of the region came from a mob attack that overpowered Egyptian security forces, the incident hurt the vital ties between Egypt and Israel in the strategic partnership concerning their stance with the other nations in the region. The last remaining Israeli ambassador in the region is now located in Jordan.
A large number of Egyptian intellectuals and public personas have advised Egypt to follow Turkey's example and axe strategic proximity with Israel over the killing of five Egyptian policemen by Israeli forces on the common border between the countries last month. Egypt had initially pledged to draw a diplomatic distance with Israel over the deaths Israel called a mistake resulting from Palestinian provocation, but Egyptian officials forfeited the move when Israel apologized for the deaths.
Egypt proves to be a vital partner for Israel in the region, with the Rafah border between Egypt and Palestine being the gate in the region that allows entry into Gaza, a region ruled by Hamas that is perceived an imminent threat by the Israeli administration. In line with the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the countries remained allies and Egypt kept Rafah under tight military control to prevent trespassers from Gaza into both countries, but in a number of incidents, the control failed, resulting in casualties in Israel.
Palestine meeting in Cairo
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also scheduled to be in Cairo on the same dates with Erdoğan, a visit that will provide a fail-safe by creating grounds for a meeting between Arab country leaders and Turkey in case Erdoğan's Gaza visit fails to materialize. Abbas' visit announced by the state-run Egyptian news agency, MENA, on Sunday includes talks between the Palestinian president and Erdoğan along with Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's Higher Military Council, Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb and the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda III.
Abbas will also be seeing Catherine Ashton, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, at a crucial meeting with regards to the Palestinian plea in the UN, which could trouble Israel's interests in the region in the face of a politically stronger Palestinian state. The roadmap Palestine is to follow regarding its UN bid is also expected to be revealed during the Egypt talks. In either case, whether Palestine pursues full membership of the Security Council or recognition as a non-member state of the General Assembly, Palestine's bid is expected to gain favor with most UN members. Riyad Mansour, permanent observer of Palestine for the UN, also acknowledged on Saturday that Palestine has the backing of 126 countries in the General Assembly and expressed hope for success in the projected UN voting, but stated that increased Palestinian existence in the UN did not endanger reconciliation talks with Israel on a state-to-state basis. Palestine will be pushing for gradual recognition from the UN, ultimately striving for a UN approved statehood with East Jerusalem as its capital, and on the land that are currently occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.
The weight of the speculated Gaza visit on the eve of the Palestinian push for recognition at the UN sessions in New York laid with the fragility of ties between Turkey and Israel after the sanctions Turkey imposed one-sidedly on Israel, downgrading its diplomatic contact with the country and freezing all military agreements and trade between the former allies. Although the heavy sanctions rang alarm bells in Israel which risked further isolation in a region that has been unwelcoming of the Jewish state since the Arab–Israeli war of 1967, Israel refrained from amending the situation, which coupled with reaction from top Turkish officials that Turkey may draw further to the edge with Israel. Although the UN tried its hand at interlocution over the crisis caused by a flotilla raid from last year, things got out of control when the so-called Palmer Report a UN panel compiled was leaked to the media and failed to ingratiate itself with both Turkey and Israel. The flotilla raid on Mediterranean high seas by Israeli commandoes resulted in the killing of nine Turkish peace activists on board the Mavi Marmara humanitarian aid ship, and traumatized diplomacy between Turkey and Israel when Israel ruled the killings self-defense and withheld an apology.