Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan wants to visit Gaza next Sunday or Monday (24-25 July), DEBKAfile reports. But both Turkish and Egyptian security services fear his visit would give the al Qaeda cells based in the Gaza Strip and Sinai a chance to assassinate him. Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas maintains it would amount to de facto Turkish and Egyptian recognition of the Hamas government.And for Jerusalem, Erdogan would be seen as deliberately hampering the efforts to heal its rift with Ankara.
If the visit is approved nonetheless, Abbas demands permission to enter Gaza City in time to lead the Palestinian welcoming party for the Turkish Prime Minister. The Egyptian military junta favors this plan, viewing it as a possible key to the revival of the moribund Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal which they brokered. But the Hamas government stands fast against Abbas entering the Gaza Strip.
Our Washington sources report the Obama administration is not yet ready to comment one way or the other since word of the plan only reached them Tuesday, July 19, when Erdogan himself said out of the blue: "If conditions are right, I will consider a visit to Gaza." All the Americans knew was that he would be paying a weekend visit to the Turkish Republic of Cyprus and Cairo.
The Turkish foreign ministry is meanwhile trying to sort out with the Egyptian authorities the problem of transporting Prime Minister Erdogan from Cairo to the Gaza Strip. According toDEBKAfile's military sources, an escorted convoy across Sinai is out of the question because Egyptian security does not control the peninsula's highways and cannot guarantee his safety.
Flying him over by helicopter is another non-option because, under the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Israeli permission would have to be requested and the flight coordinated with Israeli Air Force flight control – to which Turkey objects.
The same objection applies to an Egyptian fighter plane escort of Erdogan's helicopter, a customary feature of state leaders' travel over hostile territory.
The Turkish prime minister's plan has dashed Israeli hopes of headway in current efforts actively aided by Washington to allay the animosity between the two governments. Erdogan stands by his demand that Israel apologize for the nine deaths aboard the Turkish protest ship which the Israeli Navy prevented from breaching its Gaza blockade last year. Israel has offered to voice regret for the incident but insists an apology would be tantamount to an admission of guilt and expose the servicemen ordered to raid the ship and, anyway, UN panel has ruled that interception of the vessel was legal although Israeli force may have been excessive. The panel has held up publication of its report because Ankara challenges its ruling.
A visit by Erdogan to Gaza would further sour the climate between the two countries – especially now when missiles are again being fired almost daily from the Gaza Strip against Israeli civilian locations.
According to DEBKAfile's Middle East sources, Erdogan's ill will and proneness to provocative gestures may be partly rooted in his frustration at being snubbed by Washington on a completely separate issue: Up until recently, he was certain President Barack Obama had tabbed him as mediator in the dispute between Muammar Qaddafi and the Libyan rebels. Last week, he suddenly discovered that Obama had asked Moscow to step up to broker an end to the Libyan war, cutting Ankara out of the lead role.
His Gaza visit may therefore be seen as a loud cry of protest.