Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on Sunday that he will stick to his plan to travel to Gaza and visit the coastal strip in late May, a day after he insisted that Turkey will not send an ambassador to Israel unless Israel lifts the blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory.
In an unexpected gesture aimed at restoring normal ties with Turkey after a three-year crisis, Israel apologized to Turkey on March 22 for what it called “operational mistakes that might have led to deaths” on the Gaza-bound aid ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010. Eight Turks and one Turkish American were killed on the ship. Infuriated, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and suspended military agreements with Israel after Israel refused to comply with Turkish demands for an apology and compensation for victims of the attack and families of the dead. Ankara also linked normalization of ties to the lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
On March 22, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a formal apology and promised compensation for families of the victims and those injured during the Israeli raid on Mavi Marmara during a telephone conversation with Erdoğan in what appeared to be a peace initiative brokered by US President Barack Obama, who was on a visit to Israel. The lifting of the Gaza blockade, however, is not part of the deal.
Since then, Erdoğan has insisted that the lifting of the blockade is a condition for normal ties and said he would visit Gaza to monitor the status of the blockade. The visit is reportedly opposed by the United States, which presses Turkey for a speedy normalization with Israel in the wake of the Israeli apology. During a visit to İstanbul on March 7, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US wanted the Turkish-Israeli relations to get back on track as soon as possible. Following Kerry's meetings in Ankara, Erdoğan has said he would visit Gaza after traveling to Washington for talks with Obama in mid-May, changing his previous plans to visit Gaza in April.
Speaking to a group of journalists en route to Turkey from a visit to Mongolia on Saturday, Erdoğan also said Turkey will not send an ambassador to Israel until the blockade of Gaza is lifted, when responding to a question on whether the appointment of an ambassador is imminent.
In İstanbul, Kerry said Turkey has a critical role in a US-led initiative to resume a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Although there has been no statement on what this role could be, the US is believed to see Turkey as a conduit for talks with Hamas, convincing Hamas to recognize Israel and act in unity with al-Fatah of President Mahmoud Abbas. Analysts say Erdoğan's Gaza visit may turn into a welcome development if Erdoğan uses the visit as an opportunity to talk to Hamas about joining peace talks alongside al-Fatah.
Erdoğan complained that Israel “has not genuinely kept its promises” by continuing with attacks on Gaza and reiterated opposition to categorization of Hamas as a “terrorist” entity. When asked if Hamas is being left out of a US-led Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, Erdoğan said: “This is what Israel wants. We have been saying from the beginning that a negotiating table where Hamas or al-Fatah is not represented cannot produce peace. It is out of the question for us to consider Hamas as a terrorist organization. For us, Hamas is what al-Fatah is.” His remarks were published in newspapers on Sunday.
In addition to complications stemming from Erdoğan's Gaza trip and the blockade of Gaza, normalization with Israel also faces delays in regards to compensation talks between Turkey and Israel. An Israeli delegation was expected to visit Turkey to work out compensation plans on April 12, but the talks were delayed to April 22 after victims said they had no plan to drop criminal cases against Israeli commanders involved in the Mavi Marmara raid.
Erdoğan said the arrival of the Israeli delegation was delayed because Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who will head the Turkish delegation in the talks, joined him in his tour of Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.