Erdogan tries to find a role in fixing a ceasefire

July 24, 2014
Sarah Benton

Report from Al-Monitor followed by a more partisan one from Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet.

Photo of Turkish PM Erdogan with General Al-Sisi taken in the Prime Minister’s office in  Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul, May 2013. All photos of the two men together have disappeared in Turkish publications.

Cease-fire initiatives pit Turkey against Egypt

Is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan more concerned with undermining Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi than with brokering a cease-fire in Gaza?

By Semih Idiz, trans. Ezgi Akin
July 22, 2014

Turkey is angry over Israel’s brutal operation in the Gaza Strip. Ankara, however, is marginalized in this crisis, unable to contribute to efforts aimed at ending the bloodshed. Meanwhile, the crisis is seen to be further fueling tensions between Turkey and Egypt.

Ties between the two countries are strained already over the military coup that toppled Egypt’s elected President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated administration in July 2013.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an ardent supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, is infuriated over the role Egypt is playing in trying to broker a cease-fire in Gaza.

He is questioning Cairo’s role by arguing that Egypt is currently governed by a tyrant, and claiming that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the coup against Morsi and the Brotherhood, is merely using Gaza as a pretext to legitimize his rule.

“Sisi is not a party to this. He himself is a cruel perpetrator of a coup. He has blocked Hamas’ access to food and aid by closing the roads to Gaza,” Erdogan told reporters after attending Friday prayers on July 18. “Egypt is not a party. … They are trying to legitimize the administration in Egypt,” he said.

Erdogan clearly cannot accept that Sisi, whom he has been constantly vilifying since the Egyptian coup, may play a leading role in Gaza. His claim that the Egyptian leader is merely seeking legitimization by using Gaza even forced some diplomats in Ankara to ask whether Erdogan is concerned more about undermining Sisi than about securing an early cease-fire in Gaza.

Such doubts follow Egyptian and Israeli claims that Turkey has sabotaged Cairo’s efforts at securing a cease-fire. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told local news editors in Cairo on July 17 that Turkey, together with Qatar, was conspiring to undermine Egypt’s efforts. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman had made a similar claim earlier.

Ankara rejects these claims, but Erdogan has made apparent his opposition to any cease-fire worked out by Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) over Hamas’ head. Erdogan has also been saying that any cease-fire deal has to include the lifting of the siege on Gaza.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal visits his new supporter, PM Erdogan in Ankara, October 2013. Photo by Reuters.

This is also in line with Hamas’ position. The group’s political leader, Khaled Meshaal, was quoted by Al-Monitor on July 17 saying that Hamas rejected any cease-fire arrangement that excludes lifting the Gaza siege.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry summoned Turkey’s charge d’affaires in Cairo on July 20 to protest Erdogan’s remarks about Sisi. A similar summons took place on June 3 when Cairo expressed displeasure with comments made by Turkish officials about the Egyptian presidential election.

Neither country is represented at the ambassadorial level since Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador in November, accusing Ankara of interfering in its internal affairs. Cairo also refused to send its own ambassador, who had been recalled for consultations previously, back to Ankara.

Shoukry also reacted to Erdogan’s remarks questioning Sisi’s legitimacy in trying to broker a Gaza deal. He said these remarks “were out of keeping with diplomatic traditions, and totally unacceptable.” Shoukry said, “Erdogan’s behavior would not protect the blood of the people of Gaza.”

Most diplomats in Ankara sounded out by Al-Monitor believe Erdogan is rowing against a strong current if he thinks he can marginalize Egypt over Gaza. They say Sisi enjoys more international credibility in this crisis than Erdogan.

They also underline the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas openly said, during his visit to Ankara last week, that the PA had asked Egypt to play a role in trying to secure a cease-fire in Gaza.

“Our Egyptian brothers embarked on this initiative on our request,” Abbas said during his press conference with President Abdullah Gul, in response to a question about Cairo’s present role in Gaza.

Ambassador Hazem Abu Shanab, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, for his part underlined in his interview with Al-Monitor’s Walaa Hussein, posted on July 18, that council leaders “reject any role by anyone, save that of Egypt, as mediator and sponsor of national Palestinian reconciliation or in the political process relating to the Palestinian cause.”

Hussein also cited an Arab League source, saying, “Talk about a Turkish initiative to replace that of Cairo is not a cause of concern to the Egyptians because they are confident that neither the Palestinian Authority, represented by Fatah, nor Israel will accept any alternative mediation at the present time.”

Saudi Arabia also dashed any hopes that Erdogan may have of marginalizing Sisi. Ahram Online reported on July 19 that Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz had given full support for the Gaza truce proposal made by Egypt.

More significantly, however, US Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in Cairo for talks with Sisi and members of his government in a fresh bid to try and secure a cease-fire in Gaza. This flurry of diplomatic activities shows it is Turkey that is on the margins of efforts concerning Gaza.

Yet, there may be a secondary role for Turkey to play, judging by remarks made to Al-Monitor by Shanab. Shanab pointed out that last week’s meeting between Erdogan and Abbas was aimed at taking “advantage of Turkish efforts and relations with the Hamas leaders, as well as to reach a unified Palestinian position in favor of the Egyptian initiative to put an end to Israeli aggression.”

According to this formulation, Ankara is expected to pressure Hamas to accept a cease-fire brokered by Cairo and Washington with support from the PA. Suggestions are also being made that Turkey could mediate between Hamas and Egypt.

But there are difficulties in both cases. Having gone out on a limb by not just opposing Egyptian efforts but also any cease-fire brokered over Hamas’ head, Erdogan will be loath to give any impression that he is pressing Hamas into a cease-fire it does not want to accept. As for mediating between Egypt and Hamas, Ankara has to have relatively good ties with Cairo and a neutral position between the sides to be able to do this, but does not.

It is more likely that Erdogan will prefer, in the lead-up to the presidential elections next month, which he is currently campaigning for, to keep hitting at Israel, Sisi, the United States, Europe and Arab governments, and support Hamas’ position, because this brings him support in Turkey, even if it contributes nothing to resolving the Gaza crisis.

But a final caveat has to be tossed in here. A delegation led by Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu, the undersecretary for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, flew to Washington on July 21 to “discuss current bilateral, regional and global issues,” according to a ministry statement. Sinirlioglu planned to meet with senior counterparts from various agencies, notably the US Department of State and the National Security Council.

Given the growing frustration in Washington with Erdogan, some are speculating that Sinirlioglu’s mission is to explain to his US interlocutors what should and what should not be taken seriously at a time when Erdogan is on the campaign trail.

The implication is that Erdogan will change tack after he is elected president in a few weeks — as expected — because Ankara will want to break out of its regional isolation and regain the international influence it has lost. But given his by now familiar angry demeanor and unpredictable ways, this may be wishful thinking.

That aside, though, prospects for Turkish-Egyptian ties do not look promising for the foreseeable future.

Hamas rejects Gaza truce despite Turkey’s fresh bid

Ankara seeks to persuade Hamas to accept a truce in Gaza, with Turkish PM Erdoğan personally assuming responsibility on the issue, but Khaled Mashaal says “We reject it today … and will reject it in the future”

By AFP, Doha and Sevil Erkus, Ankara, Hurriyet
July 24, 2014

Turkey has been working behind the scenes to bring a cessation to hostilities to the conflict between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, leaning on the Hamas leader to agree to a truce pending negotiations on a more thorough settlement, before the Palestinian group rejected the latest bid.

In a visit to Ankara last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to convince Hamas’ Khaled Mashaal to accept an immediate cease-fire deal with Israel, Palestinian Ambassador to Turkey Nabil Maarouf told the Hürriyet Daily News on July 23.

Maarouf added that Erdoğan discussed the matter with Mashaal by phone on the same night.

“Erdoğan, at midnight Sahur time, talked with Mashaal to convince him. On the second day, someone from here went to Doha to meet Mashaal for the same purpose,” he said, noting that Turkish leaders agreed with Abbas’ suggestion that Hamas should first agree to an immediate truce before negotiating the terms of the deal.

“Turkish leaders responded positively that we should make a cease-fire first; we should stop the killings of people now and then discuss the details,” Maarouf said.

A Turkish official told the Daily News that Turkey was “continuing efforts within the framework set by Abbas.”

Last week’s Egyptian plan for a truce in Gaza was initiated by Abbas, Maarouf also said, adding that he asked Egyptian officials to secure a cease-fire, after which delegations would come from Israel, Hamas and the rest of Palestine to Cairo within 24 hours to launch five days of negotiations.

“All the groups in Gaza refused, because they want to guarantee something before the cease-fire. They want the Rafah border to be opened, the release of prisoners from the Gilat Shalit deal who were arrested again by the Israelis, free access to the port, and they want to build an airport [in Gaza] so that people can go and come without complications at the borders. The main aim of these is guaranteeing a new life to the Palestinians in Gaza,” said the ambassador.

The main stumbling block was the advance guarantees for such demands, Maarouf added.

‘Israelis don’t want Turkey to be in the picture’

Asked if Mashaal failed to agree to the deal despite Erdoğan’s call, Maarouf said, “I can’t say that they could not convince him, but what I can say is that Turkish leaders believe that we have to stop the killing of the Palestinians and then negotiate the terms.”

Following Erdoğan’s phone call and the special envoy’s visit to Mashaal, Abbas visited Doha over the weekend and met Qatari officials and the Hamas leader, but failed to reach a final decision.

“Mashaal made a statement [to the effect] that we understand what President Abbas is doing and we appreciate it, but we did not give him an immediate answer. This means that they are studying the proposal about a cease-fire,” he added.

The ambassador also denied that Turkey “sabotaged” the cease-fire initiatives, as claimed by Israel.

“I am sure the Israelis don’t want Turkey to be in the picture. They don’t mind if the Qataris interfere with the Egyptians, but they prefer not to see the Turks in the process,” Maarouf said.

“Before the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey had good relations with Israel. Turkey was always talking about being a facilitator, a meditator. Turkey tried many times. It’s good for us if we have a brotherly country that exerts pressure on Israel, but the facts are that Israel will never fall under any pressure apart from the U.S. Because they are sure the U.S. is 100 percent or more with them,” he added.

Hamas insists on its condition about the blockade

Hours after Maarouf’s statement, Hamas rejected a cease-fire with Israel unless the blockade on the Gaza Strip is lifted.

“We reject it today … and will reject it in the future” a cease-fire before negotiations on Hamas’s demands, which include lifting years of blockade against the Palestinian enclave, Hamas chief Mashaal told reporters in Doha late July 23.

Lifting the eight-year blockade is a main demand of Hamas which also wants the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and Israel to free prisoners.

As international calls for an end to the fighting in Gaza mount, Mashaal insisted that the Islamist Hamas “welcomes all efforts to end the aggression” and “does not object” to mediation by any party, including Egypt.

“We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices,” he said.

Egypt, whose President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has sought to isolate the militant Palestinian movement in the neighboring Gaza, had tried to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas had rejected the cease-fire proposal, which it said was favourable to Israel.

It argues that Egypt’s proposal, which is backed by the United States, United Nations and Arab League, would allow Israel to dictate if and when to ease its blockade on Gaza.

“Let us agree on achieving our demands and we will then agree on the zero-hour for a ceasefire,” Mashaal said.

He appealed to the international community and NGOs to “come to the aid of Gaza and not wait until after the war ends.”

“I call today for opening border crossings to allow the entry of aid convoys” to Gaza Strip, which needs “fuel, food and electricity,” he said.

“We are more concerned [than any other party] about a humanitarian truce, like last Thursday [July 17] … for evacuating casualties and assisting the population,” he said.

“We are not closing the door to a humanitarian truce … that would not manuever around demands of the resistance,” he added.

Mashaal insisted that his movement wants the “aggression to stop tomorrow, today, or even this minute. But lift the blockade with guarantees and not as a promise for future negotiations,” he said, adding that “we will not shut the door in the face of any humanitarian ceasefire backed by a real aid program.”

Charity Oxfam said July 23 that thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes, but have nowhere safe to shelter from Israeli airstrikes and warned that supplies of water and food are dangerously low.

The 16-day conflict has so far killed 695 Gazans, 34 Israelis and a Thai worker.

“We do not want a war and we do not want it to continue, but we will not bow in front of it,” said Mashaal.

“Nobody could disarm the resistance,” he said, setting two conditions to demilitarize Gaza, an Israeli demand: “The end of occupation and the disarmament of Israel.”

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