Moves comes as Israeli delegation arrives in Ankara for talks on compensation payments for the families of nine Turkish activists killed in an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship. Thomas Seibert reports
Turkey rejects appeal by US to delay Erdogan visit to Gaza
ISTANBUL // An Israeli delegation held several hours of talks in Ankara yesterday on compensation payments to the families of nine Turkish activists killed in an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship in May 2010, an incident that brought relations between the two former allies to breaking point.
As the countries began repairing their relations, a new row about plans by Turkey's prime minister to visit Gaza served as a reminder of how difficult that task is likely to be.
Turkey was reported to have rejected an appeal by the United States to delay a May visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Gaza Strip, ruled by the militant group Hamas, a sworn enemy of Israel.
The Ankara-based analyst Celalettin Yavuz said domestic considerations were behind Mr Erdogan's response to the US demand.
He said the prime minister was troubled by a lack of domestic support for an initiative to solve the long-running Kurdish conflict in Turkey. "So he is trying to win points with the domestic public by saying 'I am going to Gaza despite what America and Israel say'," said Mr Yavuz, deputy head of the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (Turksam), a think tank in the Turkish capital.
The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival who was meeting Turkish leaders in Istanbul yesterday, is also sceptical about Mr Erdogan's Gaza trip, which is scheduled to take place after the Turkish prime minister's visit to Washington next month. Mr Abbas was due to meet Mr Erdogan last night.
The US government is concerned that a Gaza visit by Mr Erdogan, one of the most respected leaders in the Middle East, would benefit Hamas and weaken Mr Abbas's more moderate Fatah movement in its continuing power struggle with Hamas. The Palestinian ambassador to Ankara, Nabil Maarouf, has said his government would prefer Mr Erdogan to visit Gaza after reconciliation between the two factions.
But Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper yesterday quoted Turkish diplomatic sources as saying Mr Erdogan was sticking to his travel plans. The prime minister's office did not respond to a request for comment from The National.
The compensation talks yesterday ended without any official statement. They marked the first concrete step since a US-orchestrated apology by Israel to Turkey a month ago. The United States is eager to see relations between its two key allies in the Middle East repaired as the civil war in Syria and the row surrounding Iran's nuclear programme threaten to destabilise the region.
Following the death of the activists in the raid on the Gaza-bound aid ship Mavi Marmara, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and reduced contacts with Israel to a minimum. Its conditions for a normalising ties were an Israeli apology, compensation payments and a lifting of the Gaza blockade.
But while the apology has been made and the compensation issue is not expected to create insurmountable problems, the Gaza question poses a more difficult challenge. Mr Erdogan said this month that Turkey would only exchange ambassadors with Israel once the Gaza blockade was lifted. The prime minister further committed himself by publicly stating that he planned to travel to Gaza at the end of May.
On Sunday, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, called on Mr Erdogan to delay the Gaza visit. "We have expressed to the prime minister that it would be better to delay," Mr Kerry told reporters in Istanbul, urging Mr Erdogan to wait for the "right conditions".
"We thought that the timing of it is really critical with respect to the peace process we are trying to get off the ground and that we would like to see the parties begin with as little outside distraction as possible," Mr Kerry added.
Hamas's refusal to recognise the Jewish state and past vows to destroy it are a key reason behind an Israeli blockade of Gaza since the Islamist group seized it from Mr Abbas's Fatah movement in 2007. Europe and the United States have long demanded that Hamas drop violence and recognise Israel.
But for Mr Erdogan, delaying or cancelling the visit under pressure from the US would represent an embarrassing climbdown domestically. Israel is extremely unpopular in Turkey, so Mr Erdogan is keen to avoid any impression that he is bowing to outside pressure for Israel's benefit.
The mere fact that Mr Erdogan has agreed to talk to Israel is seen with suspicion by some in Turkey.
Families of the victims of the Israeli raid accused the government of rushing into the talks "head over heels" and without consulting them properly. In a statement on the website of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), the Islamic charity behind the Mavi Marmara mission, the families said it was a sign of disrespect to the victims to conduct the compensation talks while the Gaza blockade was still in place.
Mr Kerry, during his visit to Istanbul, also called on Turkey to reopen a Christian Orthodox seminary near Istanbul that has been closed for more than 40 years. "It is our hope that the Halki seminary will open," he said. Mr Kerry said he discussed the issue with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu.
The Turkish government says it is in favour of reopening the seminary and is working on a formula to make that possible under laws banning non-state religious schools.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse and Reuters