By Saverio Leopardi
Turkish officials have recently declared that talks on normalisation of ties with Israel have reached the final stage. The one sticking point however is the end of the Gaza blockade, one of Turkey’s three preconditions for the positive conclusion of negotiations.
Relations between the two countries have been fraught throughout the last six years, following the assault on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, by the Israeli military in 2010. During a raid to prevent activists on board the Mavi Marmara from reaching the Gaza Strip, Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish nationals and one American of Turkish descent, an attack which ostensibly led to a freeze in Turkish-Israeli relations. Following an official apology by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013, Israel and Turkey seem close to a deal on the issue of compensation for the families of slain activists; fulfilling the first two preconditions for normalisation.
On his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly affirmed that normalisation cannot happen without the lifting of the siege on Gaza, however, it is not clear what measures Erdoğan might deem sufficient to consider the blockade lifted. Some have said that as little as the deployment of a Turkish power generator ship to Ashdod port, supplying the Strip with badly needed electricity, would be enough to satisfy Turkey’s demands.
In fact, the reason why an overall agreement on the matter remains to be seen is that the Israeli government favours the idea of a Turkish-funded new power plant in Gaza instead of a Turkish ship permanently docked at an Israeli port, rather than larger issues related to human rights and the occupation. Nevertheless, the two parties will likely find a settlement during the next round of talks, scheduled for mid-May; but while this agreement would alleviate Gaza energy crisis, it is uncertain whether it would touch other central issues. For instance, the construction of a seaport has been put on the table, but the idea needs to overcome opposition in both Israel and Egypt, the other country responsible for the closure of the enclave.
At any rate, short of providing the currently denied freedom of movement for people and goods or ending the tight Israeli military control of Gaza waters, land and air space, it would be hard to consider the blockade lifted, regardless of the Turkish government’s interpretations of the deal .
What does Palestine mean to Erdoğan?
Since his accession to power, Erdoğan has gained large domestic and regional popularity thanks to his open support for the Palestinian cause. He and his party resorted to a rhetoric that reversed the traditional Turkish restraint towards Israel, as exemplified by the famous Erdoğan-Peres dispute at the 2009 World Economic Forum, which came to be known as the one minute crisis.
Such rhetoric allowed the Turkish government both to foster relations with Islamist partners around the Arab world and to capitalize on growing hostility against Israel among Turkish public opinion. However, the conclusion of the Turkish-Israeli diplomatic crisis highlights some points that might help understanding the real place of Palestine/Israel in Erdoğan and AKP’s foreign policy.
If put into historical context, the freeze in diplomatic relations appears both smaller in scale, and follows a logical pattern of development. Despite much publicised secession of economic relations, trade exchanges between Ankara and Tel Aviv have not declined over the past six years; rather increased to the tune of $5.44 billion in 2014.
The main sector affected by the Mavi Marmara affair is military cooperation, which was gradually suspended between 2010 and 2011. Given this, Turkey’s need for military assistance might be behind the push towards normalisation with Israel. Indeed, Turkish-Israeli military ties deepened pragmatically during the 1990s when the bitter conflict with the PKK put military security concerns at the top of the Turkish government’s economic and foreign policies agenda.
With the current resumption of armed conflict in Turkey’s Kurdish region, Erdoğan might be willing to resume military cooperation with Israel and seek its assistance to develop and expand the capabilities of the Turkish army, particularly in the employment of drones. The persistence of a fierce war over the border in Syria, and with Turkish interests in gaining influence over this spiralling conflict, the security concerns stemming from this volatile situation reinforce Turkey’s need for military development and increase the likelihood of reconciliation with Israel.
Yet Turkey’s interest in renewing military ties with Israel appears in stark contrast with Erdoğan’s voiced support for the Palestinian cause and his Palestinian partners, which has grown in strength and tenacity since the unfolding of the diplomatic crisis with Israel. However in actuality, Turkish policies towards Palestine differ little from those of most international actors. Turkey supported Palestine’s bid to upgrade its status at the UN in 2012, but while it did so along with other 139 countries, the UN recognition of the State of Palestine was no breakthrough in the progress of Palestinian rights. The move in fact represented an attempt by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to gain some political credentials, as he and the Palestinian Authority (PA) appear increasingly delegitimised.
More importantly, Turkey, a historical backer of a two-state solution, fully accepts the framework of the Oslo accords and its measures that envisaged the creation of foreign-funded governing institutions. This entails that concerning its relations with the Palestinians, the Turkish government mainly acts as an international donor, funding various development programs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Nevertheless, throughout recent years, and especially since the destructive Israeli war on Gaza in summer 2014, Turkey’s aid efforts have not come close to matching the President’s verbal support for the Palestinian cause.
As has been recently revealed, the Turkish government only paid 32% of the $200 million pledged for reconstruction in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the logic behind Turkey and other donor countries’ aid is being increasingly questioned in Gaza as funds are mainly allocated to the construction of mosques at the expense of more needed housing reconstruction. In sum, while acting as an average donor, Erdoğan’s Turkey never questioned the ‘post-Oslo’ status-quo, the legitimacy of which is increasingly challenged by grassroots movements in Palestine as well as at the international level due to its two-decade long failure to bring the conflict any closer to a fair settlement.
Turkey seen from Palestine
After several years of Turkey’s turn to pro-Palestine rhetoric, it is worth looking at how now the two main Palestinian actors, namely the PA and Hamas, are reacting to the normalisation process. Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, who has never expressed any particular resentment towards Israel concerning the Mavi Marmara affair, appears satisfied with Turkish-Israeli reconciliation. Through their eyes, this would mean easier Turkish investments in the West Bank, something the PA is always in need of to ensure its political survival and foster its legitimacy. Moreover, the PA’s ruling party Fatah likely sees rapprochement as a setback for its rival and a reversal of the friendly relations that Hamas and Turkey have nurtured since 2010.
In commenting on the news of Turkey-Israel normalisation, Hamas dispelled the rumours hinting at a consequent weakening of its ties with the Turkish government. Turkish support for the movement is not in doubt according to some officials, but the reality is that the Hamas leadership does not have a real choice in that. After the deterioration of Hamas’ relations with Iran, following their condemnation of the Syrian regime, the Islamist movement has suffered increasing isolation and is more reliant on Turkey than ever.
This condition has been exacerbated greatly since the 2013 military coup in Egypt which deposed Islamist President Morsi, replacing him with a military regime which has clamped down on passage to the Gaza Strip. It is for this reason that Hamas’ political leadership does not want to renounce Erdoğan’s partnership. Turkish assistance in reconstruction and service provision is fundamental for the Hamas government in Gaza, where the humanitarian situation continues to worsen every day.
Conversely, Hamas’ military leadership is less interested in Turkish financial support, which has never involved military assistance to the movement. For that, the leaders of the Al-Qassam brigades hope to rebuild their alliance with Iran. This means that the reconciliation between Ankara and Tel Aviv might constitute another point of disagreement dividing Hamas’ political and military leaderships, much like the issue of improving relations with Saudi Arabia, a line supported by the political bureau but opposed by the military wing.
In its essence, Turkish-Israel normalisation underscores the prominence of realpolitik, in terms of both military and geopolitical concerns, over ideological drivers in Erdoğan’s foreign policy. The AKPs mobilisation of pro-Palestinian slogans ultimately serves its electoral goals and finds little correspondence in Turkish actual foreign policy.
Despite predictions that the rise of political Islam to power in Turkey would mark a reversal of friendly relations with Israel, and the apparent proof in the now six year long diplomatic ice age, the unfolding of this crisis actually highlights the continuity of traditional orientations, not only for Turkey, but due to financial pressures, for the PA and even Hamas as well.