Yesterday at the White House there was a press conference by President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey. Most of the focus going into it and coming out of it has been on the various Washington scandals currently erupting, but I don’t have anything unique to say about those. I did happen to watch the press conference, however, and it was a question directed to Prime Minister Erdogan, and more importantly his manner of answering, which caught my attention.
The question was from Juliana Goldman of Bloomberg News. After asking President Obama the scandal-questions of the day, she addressed Prime Minister Erdogan: “And also, Mr. Prime Minister, what is the status on efforts to normalize relations with Israel? And do you still plan to go to Gaza in the coming weeks?” (I’m using the AP transcript.)
A question, then, firstly about normalizing relations with Israel, and then about visiting the Gaza Strip. Erdogan’s complete answer was as follows:
In your question about Gaza, according to my plans, most probably I would be visiting Gaza in June. But it will not be a visit only to Gaza; I will also go to the West Bank.
I place a lot of significance on this visit in terms of peace in the Middle East, and this visit in no way means favoring one or the other. I’m hoping that that visit will contribute to unity in Palestine, first of all. This is something that I focus on very much. And I hope that my visit can contribute to that process. Thank you.
What’s interesting about this? First, although the question was about relations with Israel, in his answer he does not even use the word “Israel.” His statement that his visit to Gaza “in no way means favoring one or the other” might easily be taken—and likely was taken by many listening—to mean that he intends no favoritism of the Palestinians over the Israelis, but is that what he’s actually saying? I think not; he preceded that statement by pointing out that he will also visit the West Bank, i.e. not only the Gaza Strip. Gaza is ruled by Hamas; the West Bank is ruled by the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas. Erdogan hopes to “contribute to unity in Palestine” by visiting both places. He does not intend to show favoritism to Hamas by visiting Gaza only.
By completely ignoring the question about Israel, and not even using the word “Israel,” what importance would it be fair to say that Erdogan actually places on normalizing relations with Israel?
So, this apparently breezy answer about peace and unity might be heard one way by relatively unengaged Western listeners, but the real import of his answer would have been very clear to his audience in the Middle East. “I am going to Gaza and the West Bank to help unite the people of Palestine. Israel is beneath my contempt.”
It was an artfully-worded answer to address the two audiences differently.
I merely wanted to stop and make sure that Prime Minister Erdogan got some recognition for this, as in our fast-paced world we can so easily let such things pass us by.