By Saverio Leopardi
In the ever shifting sands of Middle Eastern politics and conflicts, even dramatic changes in policy orientation come as little surprise. Nevertheless, when regional and international leaders issue declarations in stark contrast to their country’s most recent policies, decrypting the real intentions behind the rhetoric is a particularly challenging task.
This is the case of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent statements about Palestine during the first annual conference of the Association of Parliamentarians for Al-Quds, held in Istanbul on November 29 – 30.
During the conference, the President called on all Muslims to fulfill “their duty”, “embrace the Palestinian cause and protect Jerusalem”, criticizing Islamic countries for their lack of action on Palestine. He also added that a “lasting peace in the Middle East cannot be reached without a free Palestine based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital”, in a further critical reference to the inaction displayed by the international community.
These declarations come at a critical point, as Turkey and Israel are about to finalize their reconciliation process with the exchange of diplomatic delegations, after more than five years of troubled relations following the Mavi Marmara incident. Meanwhile, fighting over the holy status of Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Islam is more charged than ever, following the Israeli government’s recently proposed ban on the Islamic call to prayer in Jerusalem.
The controversial proposition has stirred wide resentment among Palestinians and Muslims worldwide. Within this context, Erdoğan’s declarations can be read as an attempt to strike a chord with the Palestinian public, but also with the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) core conservative constituency. Yet with Turkey’s recently pursued reconciliation policies towards Israel, many questions have been raised over the implications of Erdoğan’s strategy concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Restating Turkey’s regional role
Over the last two years, Ankara’s regional strategy has undergone a rapid process of reconfiguration, largely prompted by catastrophic foreign policy decisions in Syria which have shaken Turkey’s economy and society to the core. Notably, this reconfiguration stimulated quick rapprochement with Russia, despite its ever expanding support for the Syrian regime and, as mentioned, with Israel. After pursuing a failed regional policy in support of fellow Islamists, be it in Egypt, Syria or Palestine, the AKP government is now trying to recover its role as regional mediator.
Indeed, Erdoğan’s foreign policy readjustment draws on some of the main policy lines followed by Turkey over the last few decades, prior to the Mavi Marmara affair and the Arab Spring. During the early 2000s, Turkey tried on several occasions to mediate between Israel and its Arab opponents. The AKP began its foray into regional mediation with Syria, opening a Turkish mediation channel which allowed for indirect talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv. Negotiations culminated in April 2008 when Syria’s Bashar al-Assad announced Israel’s forthcoming withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty.
The peace treaty was short lived however, with Israel’s Gaza operation reaping devestation on the region. Yet Turkey managed to establish itself as an important regional player during this time. Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the involvement of the Turkish government as a mediator had been pushed for by both parties, in particular following the outbreak of the second Intifada in late 2000. In taking a leading role in mediation efforts, Turkey capitalized on and increased its image as an impartial actor that enjoyed good relations with Israel as well as with Arab interlocutors.
Before the rapid deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations that began with Israel’s devastating Operation Cast Lead and Erdoğan’s subsequent outburst against Israeli President Peres during the Davos summit of 2009, and culminated with the Mavi Marmara incident, the two countries were actually experiencing a deepening of their economic and military ties. In fact, even after the diplomatic crisis, trade between Ankara and Tel Aviv continued to grow, reaching a volume of $5.44 billion in 2014. Turkish-Israeli military cooperation with armaments sales and joint drills have been a constant since the 1990s, coinciding with the escalation of Turkey’s domestic conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The recent re-ignition of fighting in south-eastern Turkey is another element favouring rapprochement with Tel Aviv. All these aspects give a strategic depth to relations between Turkey and Israel that has remerged following over five years of diplomatic stalemate.
Concerning his current Syrian strategy, Erdoğan on the one hand seeks to avoid the establishment of a unified Kurdish polity along Turkey’s border while on the other, seeks to strengthen his position as “commander-in-chief” following the July 15 coup attempt.
Operation Euphrates Shield, launched in late August, through which Turkey seeks to ensure control over a small strip of Syrian territory, serves this double purpose. An additional goal being the empowerment of Turkey’s position in the region, in view of possible future talks to settle the Syrian conflict once the new U.S. administration takes office.
Bolstering Turkey’s position in the eyes of regional and international actors is likely Erdoğan’s main goal concerning Israel/Palestine as well. Thus, the first reason behind his declaration during the Istanbul conference was to deflect growing criticism over the completion of the reconciliation process with Israel. More specifically, after having renewed its status as Israel’s main regional partner, Ankara may once again seek to play a pivotal role in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At least nominally pulling up alongside countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
With a thick cloud of uncertainty surrounding the orientation of the upcoming Trump administration in Washington, Erdoğan can once again back up his credentials over Palestine in order to ensure increased involvement for his country as a regional power and diplomat.
Factors favouring Turkish involvement in Palestinian politics
The situation of Palestinian internal politics presents some substantial opportunities for Turkey, despite or in some cases, because of the warming of its relation with Israel. In particular, sections of the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, will likely look favourably on closer relations with Ankara and increased Turkish involvement in multilateral negotiations.
Fatah, the Palestinian National Authority’s (PNA) ruling party in control of the West Bank, is currently absorbed in a fierce internal debate on who will succeed Mahmud Abbas as the leadership of both the movement and the PNA. Abbas, now in his eighties, primarily aims to prevent his former Fatah rival Muhammad Dahlan from regaining an influential role within the organization after his expulsion in 2011.
Formerly the PNA’s strong-man in Gaza, Dahlan managed to maintain his influence on regional and Palestinian politics thanks to his close relations with the Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi governments. In fact, these countries have been pressuring Abbas to consider the reintegration of Muhammad Dahlan into the movement, thus increasing the chance to see one of Dahlan’s entourage at the head of both Fatah and the PNA.
From this perspective, greater Turkish involvement in Palestinian internal politics might help defuse Arab demands in favour of Dahlan. This, coupled with the PNA’s heavy dependence on foreign aid, and bolstered by the wide network of Turkish NGOs and expanding investment interests in the West Bank, means that Palestinian officials are looking at Ankara’s potential in this conflict with renewed interest.
Hamas too is experiencing internal divisions although to a lesser degree than Fatah. At present, the main divide is between the political leadership of the movement and its military apparatus. This also has its implications for Turkey. With Hamas’ declaration of support for the Syrian opposition, alienating two of its formerly closest allies, Syria and Iran, they are in the market for new regional partners.
Turkey’s Islamist government has been represented as a good alternative for the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas’ military leaders for their part have been pressing for a rapprochement with Iran, especially since the coup that resulted in the ousting of Egyptian Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in June 2013, and even more so, with the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation process. Yet it appears that Turkey will win the day due to support from the head of Hamas’ Political Bureau Khaled Meshʿal.
Since the end of the strategic relations with Iran and Syria, Hamas has been increasingly isolated in the region. Its weakened stance not allowing the group to cool relations with Ankara, even following Ankara’s controversial rapprochement with Tel Aviv. Turkey has provided a valuable safe haven for Hamas’ cadres, who have had the chance to meet in the country as well as had a direct link with the Turkish government.
Palestine: still a secondary concern
While Palestinian factions might look with interest at increasing Turkish involvement, Palestine continues to represent a secondary concern for Erdoğan, mainly linked with his image as a committed Islamic leader. After the July coup attempt, Erdoğan’s priority has been reinforcing his grip on power and eliminating or weakening his domestic opponents. Yet with Turkey’s domestic Kurdish conflict in full swing once again and Kurdish autonomous zones rising up across the border, the government’s foreign policy is reflecting the urgency and insecurity felt at home, with Ankara striving to secure some influence over the main stages of conflict in Syria and Iraq.
Not just the shifting sands of the Middle East, but growing insecurity at the international level inhibits any precise predictions of how single actors will behave, Turkey included. The first and most pressing unknown being the orientation of the Trump administration. Considering the new U.S. administration’s inexperience and potential unwillingness to maintain Washington’s involvement in the different conflicts unfolding across the Middle East, Turkey may have an opportunity to acquire more leverage as a regional mediator. Moreover, closer coordination between Washington and Moscow, to which Donald Trump repeatedly hinted at during his campaign, could actually play in favour of a renewed regional role for Turkey.
The internal Palestinian political situation also presents several dilemmas and opportunities. First and foremost, who will succeed Mahmud Abbas and how this succession will unfold. Certainly, several sectors of the Palestinian leadership will try to preserve and develop good relations with Ankara as a more stable regional ally. Moreover, improved ties with Israel could actually allow Turkey to play a mediating role in the case of another round of confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip – an ever more likely eventuality as the conflict over Jerusalem reaches boiling point once again.
Certainly, Palestine will continue to represent a rallying cry for Erdoğan and the AKP, a way to bolster the government’s credentials at home and vis-à-vis the Muslim world. This could come with an increase in Turkish involvement in Palestinian affairs, although any involvement will continue to be secondary to the strategic dimension of Turkish-Israeli relations. Ankara’s abandonment of one of the fundamental preconditions for rapprochement with Israel, the lifting of the siege on Gaza, already highlighted the real priorities of Erdoğan’s government. In fact, Ankara is reliant on good relations with Tel Aviv if its wants to strengthen its regional role, also vis-à-vis Washington and Moscow. Regardless of the possibility of growing U.S.-Russian coordination over Syria, Tel Aviv will remain a key partner for both the Kremlin and the White House.
Essentially, while the rhetoric of the Turkish government will continue to be vehemently pro-Palestine, aiming to mobilize support for this cause for domestic purposes, Ankara’s foreign policy will be to continue strengthening ties with Israel – the strategic, economic and realpolitik opportunities too enticing to miss.