ISTANBUL // In announcing his intention to visit the Gaza Strip, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has raised the stakes in an ongoing crisis with Israel, observers say.
Quoting unnamed foreign ministry sources in Ankara, the Turkish daily Radikal reported yesterday that Turkish diplomats had told their Israeli counterparts they expected an Israeli apology for the death of nine Turkish activists during a raid on a flotilla of ships carrying aid for Gaza last year by July 27.
That day, a panel of the United Nations is expected to publish its report on the Israeli raid. In case Israel does not issue an apology before that date, Turkish-Israeli relations could sink even deeper into crisis, Radikal said. "If Israel apologises, [Mr Erdogan's] Gaza trip will not take place," the paper reported. There was no official comment on the newspaper story.
Mr Erdogan told reporters on Tuesday that he intended to visit the Gaza Strip after a visit to Egypt, which is expected to take place next month. He said the Turkish foreign ministry was looking into arranging the Gaza trip.
Celalettin Yavuz, the deputy director of the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, a think tank in Ankara, said Mr Erdogan's announcement stood for a new, tougher style of foreign policy. By entering Gaza from Egypt, Mr Erdogan would in effect break the Israeli blockade of the area, Mr Yavuz said by telephone yesterday.
"Either Israel apologises by July 27 and Erdogan will not go to Gaza via Israel, or Israel does not apologise, and then tensions will rise further," Mr Yavuz said. "It is too early to tell what will happen."
He said Mr Erdogan's government had concluded that Turkey's foreign-policy approach of recent years, which sought to address international problems like the Cyprus conflict with "goodwill", had failed to produce tangible results. That is why Mr Erdogan had started to follow a tougher line.
Earlier this week, the Turkish prime minister ruled out further Turkish concessions to overcome the division of Cyprus, even though the conflict on the Mediterranean island has slowed down Turkey's bid to join the European Union. Mr Erdogan also said Turkey would freeze relations with the EU during the second half of next year, when the Greek republic of Cyprus will hold the bloc's rotating presidency. Last week, Mr Erdogan refused to meet Stefan Fule, the EU's enlargement commissioner.
In the case of Israel, Mr Erdogan was aware that a confrontational style benefited him both domestically and among many governments in the Middle East, Mr Yavuz said. "Every now and then, he plays this card." But too much public pressure on Israel carried the risk of making an Israeli apology less likely, Mr Yavuz added.
Mr Erdogan's announcement of his planned visit to Gaza came at a time when Turkish diplomats were expressing optimism about a solution of the row.
"I would be surprised if there were no apologies since both sides have the political will to resolve this crisis," ambassador Ozdem Sanberk, a Turkish member of the UN panel probing the Israeli raid, said earlier this week, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. "We are heading toward a solution probably toward the end of the month."
Israeli officials, including the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, have said publicly that Israel will not apologise. But Israeli officials also acknowledge that upgrading relations with Ankara was a high diplomatic priority and that Israel would benefit from a return to the close ties the countries had before a series of crises that started with Israel's military operation in Gaza in late 2008.
Turkey showed its willingness to improve ties with Israel by putting pressure on a controversial aid organisation in Istanbul not to take part in this year's second Gaza flotilla. As a result, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, or IHH, pulled out of the project last month.
On Tuesday, Israeli forces intercepted a French ship heading for Gaza. Fifteen passengers, along with an Israeli journalist, on board the Dignity Al Karama were arrested and were to be deported yesterday.
Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for Israel's immigration service, confirmed that the 15 passengers, including 11 French citizens and others from Sweden, Canada and Greece, would be sent home.
"The 15 passengers were interviewed on Tuesday evening by our services and have voluntarily agreed to sign a document saying that they are ready to leave in 72 hours," Ms Hadad told Agence France-Presse.