Jewish Journal

Turkey’s prime minister set to visit Gaza

Will renew political, investment relationships

by Steve Dorsey, The Media Line

Posted on May. 8, 2013 at 10:43 am

Turkeyish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on May 7. Photo by Umit Bektas/Reuters

Turkeyish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on May 7. Photo by Umit Bektas/Reuters

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Political observers in Turkey expect Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to reaffirm his support for Palestinians with a visit this month to Gaza, marking the third anniversary of a deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish aid flotilla bound for the disputed territory

Israeli forces stormed the vessel, the 'Mavi Marmara,' killing nine Turkish activists, including a Turkish-American in 2010. Dozens of others were injured. The ship was attempting to breach a naval blockade of Gaza.

In March, Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a long-awaited apology for the raid to his Turkish counterpart in March. Following the apology, Turkey's relations with Israel began to normalize. Israel has agreed to pay compensation to Turkey and the two sides have worked out a draft agreement.

Despite mending its relationship with Israel, Turkey has also focused new attention on its friendship with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Turkey continues efforts to build a hospital in Gaza and manage infrastructure and trade deals vital to the PA.

Even as Turkey's relations with Israel soured, trade between Turkey and the PA increased following a free trade agreement between the two signed in 2004.

In 2011 trade between Turkey and the PA increased 21 percent to $49 million, according to the most recent available data from the Turkish Ministry of Economy. Almost all of the trade was exports to the PA, mostly industrial and cooking supplies, according to the Palestine Trade Center, a Ramallah-based trade group.

The PA has sought to position itself as an emerging market for investors in Turkey and other countries, and Turkey is firmly positioned as the PA's second-largest trading partner after Israel.

Yet data on which Turkish corporations are investing or beginning business operations in the PA are limited. Turkey's largest trade group, the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, declined to comment on the role of any of the country's 1.7 million companies in the PA.

“I don't think any reasonable corporation or person would want to put a dime into Gaza” because of the risks, Dr. Hossein Askari, a professor and Middle East economic expert at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told The Media Line.

However, some corporations have found a footing in the PA, despite the risks there.

The Istanbul-based Eurasia operations of Coca-Cola have long had a presence there with a locally-owned franchisee overseeing three bottling plants and four sales and distribution centers, corporate spokesman Dana Bolden said in an e-mailed statement.

Foreign leaders including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have praised Coke's efforts in the disputed territories as promoting economic development and furthering peace.

“Improved economic conditions are a necessary part of achieving a sustainable PA and The Coca-Cola Company is committed to investing in sustainable communities wherever we do business,” Bolden said.

But analysts say Turkey's state-funded trade and investment in Gaza and the West Bank and its corporate encouragement could be more than just good will.

“I have long felt that Turkey's drive, in my view, is looking increasingly towards the East instead of to the West,” said Askari. “By looking eastward and establishing its hegemony in that whole region there will be much more bargaining power with Europe."

Turkey has recently renewed talks to join the European Union, and is one of Europe's fastest growing economies. Turkey hopes by investing in the PA it will earn a larger stake in the Middle East as well, as the collapse of Syria threatens regional stability,  Askari said.

But Turkey's move towards Gaza has angered some foreign governments.

Gaza is controlled by Hamas, recognized as a foreign terrorist group by the US.

Kerry had urged Erdoğan to postpone his trip to Gaza while Turkey's relationship with Israel is repaired.

“The prime minister obviously has a right to make decisions about what he does and where he goes, but it was our feeling in a constructive way that we thought that the timing of it is really critical with respect to the peace process that we’re trying to get off the ground,” Kerry said during an April visit to Istanbul.

Instead, Turkish authorities announced they would continue preparations for the visit to take place after Erdoğan visits US President Barack Obama in Washington later this month.

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