If there wasn’t already enough consternation about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Gaza, tentatively scheduled for late May, the spat that erupted this week, (resulting in a rebuke by Erdoğan of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry), has raised diplomatic pressure around the trip.
Erdoğan had announced his plan to visit the Hamas-ruled territory shortly following President Obama’s Middle East trip in mid-March — and immediately raised the ire of some Israeli politicians who did not appreciate the timing of the announcement (coming shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology for the IDF raid of a Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens). Kerry had also urged Erdoğan to reconsider the timing during his trip to Istanbul on April 7th, with some measure of success: Erdoğan later announced he would be postponing the trip until after his May 16th meeting with Obama in Washington. However, Kerry’s recent reiteration of that call provoked an irate Erdoğan to respond on Tuesday: ‘I have already said that I will go [to Gaza] after the U.S. visit. There is no postponement,’ adding that he wished Kerry ‘hadn’t said that, it wasn’t classy.’
Harsh. Doubly so, considering that the trip is an exercise in political futility. Erdoğan — in theory — could use it to exert his influence over Hamas and persuade them to consider respecting the Quartet Principles, which include recognizing Israel’s right to exist, as a precondition to peace talks. But this is unlikely in the extreme: Erdoğan won’t ask for that and Hamas top brass won’t bend on that issue. And the response from the Palestinian Authority just drives the point home.
Which suggests Erdoğan’s actions signal are geared towards scoring some points in the region, especially after his government signaled its willingness to consider a rapprochement with Israel. It should have been expected that this move towards normalization would be accompanied by some harsh rhetoric in order to preserve Erdoğan’s reputation in the neighborhood. That this exercise in political branding comes at the expense of Kerry, who seems ineffectual in the face of continuing Turkish support for Hamas, is another small PR coup for Turkey — it just slapped the U.S. and got off scot-free. Count this as a win for Erdoğan, a second-order win for Hamas, and an unforced error by Kerry.