Between Idealism and Realpolitik: Erdoğan’s Quest for Palestine

The ongoing Great March of Return in Gaza and the ensuing tensions reignited the war of words between Turkey and Israel. “I do not need to tell the world how cruel the Israeli army is,” said Turkish President Erdoğan on April 1st, adding, “We can see what this terror state is doing by looking at the situation in Gaza and Jerusalem…Israel has carried out a massacre in Gaza and Netanyahu is a terrorist.” Back in December 2017, Turkey organized a summit of Muslim nations in opposition to President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Erdoğan also promised to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem. With Yemen’s participation, Turkey drafted a UN General Assembly resolution––that passed with an overwhelming vote of 128 to 9––which stated that “any decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect.”

A gradual but purposeful shift in Turkish foreign policy toward Palestine has taken place since Erdoğan became prime minister.

Indeed, the Gaza marches, Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, and the American decision to accelerate moving the US embassy there give Turkey and Erdoğan a golden opportunity to play a central role regarding Palestinian affairs. Turkey’s position today enables it to strengthen its ties with both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and bolster its claim to be an arbiter between them. On the other hand, and 70 years after the establishment of Israel on May 14, 1948 and the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Ankara may well be looking at worsening relations with Tel Aviv, which had seen some thawing following the signing of an agreement between the two capitals in 2016 after a few years of acrimony.

The Erdoğan Era: A New Phase in Turkey-Palestine Relations?

A gradual but purposeful shift in Turkish foreign policy toward Palestine has taken place since Erdoğan became prime minister in 2002. In fact, the Palestine question has helped him burnish his image in both the Arab and Muslim worlds; therefore, his ideological stance is often inseparable from his realpolitik calculations. A glimpse at Turkey-Palestine relations before the Erdoğan era is imperative to understand how Ankara has long perceived the Palestinian issue through the lens of geopolitics, and thus, utilized it to boost its own interests. With an emphasis on Muslim identity by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has shifted its policy from positive neutrality between Israel and Palestine to a studied guardianship of Palestinian interests.

Surprising the Arab world, Turkey became the first Muslim state to recognize Israel on a de facto basis in March 1949, and official relations culminated a year later. Confronted with accusations of “selling out” the Palestinians, Ankara pointed to the fact that Turkey was among the last European powers to recognize Israel.

During the Cold War era, Turkey’s NATO membership led it to pursue a policy that did not fully favor either Palestinians or Israelis. A special awareness of the Palestinian issue was raised in Turkey’s leftist party platforms, not among conservative Turkish politicians, because of the left’s general affinity with national liberation movements. It is rumored that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recruited from Turkish and Kurdish leftist students. Furthermore, and owing to deep ties with the United States military, Turkey’s military establishment took a more pragmatic approach and gradually developed strong relations with Israel’s top brass—not through official government lines, but rather, by cultivating personal relations with officers. Additionally, the birth of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the group’s training camps in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, and Kurdish leftists’ relations with the PLO during the 1980s fortified military cooperation between Turkish and Israeli officials. Turkey-Palestine relations reached their nadir in the mid-1990s when the Turkish military signed numerous and unprecedented defense contracts with Israel. Interestingly, some of these agreements were signed by the Islamist Welfare Party of the 1990s—with which Erdoğan was affiliated, and it was the party that elected him mayor of Istanbul—although party leaders later claimed that they took such decisions under the influence of powerful Turkish generals.1

Soon, however, Turkey pivoted back to Palestine, well before the rise of Erdoğan’s AKP. Leftist Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit took steps toward mediation between Palestinians and Israelis before the Camp David talks in 2000. Ankara suggested the Ottoman model for Jerusalem, where Israelis and Palestinians would have shared sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif. The Turkish government emphasized its support for the right of Palestinians to an independent state, and at the same time, persuaded PLO leader Yasser Arafat to postpone his plans for declaring independence. Following the Second Intifada and the Israeli aggression against Palestinian civilians, Ecevit reflected the frustration in Turkish public opinion polls, in which most citizens stated that Turkey did not take enough measures to save Palestinians. He became the first Turkish prime minister to accuse Israel of genocide, saying that “genocide is being perpetrated against the Palestinian people before the eyes of the world.”

Israeli officials welcome Erdoğan’s Islamist rhetoric, as his discourse is used to scapegoat Turkish popular support for Palestine.

The first years of Erdoğan’s ascendance to power coincided with a new era in Palestinian politics that saw a widening divide between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority as well as the Israeli public’s shift to right-wing politics. Such structural changes led Turkey to seek an active role as protector of Palestinian interests. Former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu pursued a diplomatic campaign to convince Washington that Hamas’s 2006 election victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections should be seen as an opportunity instead of an alarming threat—as Ankara was already using its credibility to influence Hamas leaders to engage in the international system and fence off their relations with Iran and Syria. The AKP aimed to maintain warm relations among all parties to the conflict and hosted a summit with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Turkey.

For the AKP government, the critical turning point was Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the military assault on Gaza that resulted in the death of over 1,400 Palestinians and caused extreme outrage among the Turkish public and political parties of all stripes. These developments anchored Turkey’s new role toward Palestine. Erdoğan’s extraordinary reaction to Peres at the 2009 World Economic Forum, because of the Gaza operation, was celebrated across the Middle East. The Israeli foreign ministry responded by humiliating the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv in front of the Israeli media, which was told to film him seated in a lower chair than the ministry’s representative with no Turkish flag next to the Israeli flag.

Such politics of “national honor” between Turkey and Israel—and not pro-Islamist politics as some may believe—widened the wedge and possibly fueled the violence in Israel’s raid on the Turkish civilian aid flotilla headed to Gaza, the Mavi Marmara, killing nine Turkish activists on board in May 2010. Although in the past Israel had allowed some aid flotillas to reach Gaza and sent others back, the disproportionate use of force represented a warning to Turkish authorities. What followed was not only the longest term of diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel but also Erdoğan’s increasing emphasis on Muslim unity and support for the Palestinian cause to bolster his political support at home and across the Muslim world. Since the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013, Erdoğan has faced increasing domestic resentment as well as international pressure due to the AKP’s authoritarian measures and corruption allegations. Therefore, the Palestinian question has become most useful in supporting Erdoğan’s narrative that Zionist-influenced players have plotted a systematic campaign against him due to his leadership role in the Muslim world. In fact, Israeli officials welcome Erdoğan’s Islamist rhetoric, as his discourse is used to scapegoat Turkish popular support for Palestine and excuse Israeli actions and persistent provocations. At the same time, Turkish opposition parties frequently criticize trade relations between Israel and AKP cronies, including Erdoğan’s own son.

Erdoğan and the Gap between Hamas and Fatah

Turkey’s new role has provided opportunities to encourage negotiations and reconcile divisions among Palestinian factions. This task, though challenging, has helped to improve the image of Erdoğan’s regime abroad. Turkey celebrated the recent agreement between Hamas and Fatah to bury their decade-long antagonism. Ankara also condemned Washington’s recent decision to list Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as a “specially designated global terrorist” and impose sanctions, finding the decision “suspicious” as it came “at a time when unity inside Palestine has started to be secured.”

The reconciliation agreement that Ankara celebrated, however, has not yet borne fruit. Reports from Gaza reveal that there has been no change in residents’ everyday suffering and internal conditions that are under Palestinian control. Moreover, how the security structure will be reshuffled remains a mystery. Hamas appears to be ready to retreat from policing everyday governance, but it wants to maintain operations at the Gaza border fence. The Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah, finds itself increasingly weak in the face of Israeli aggression, lately manifested in Likud’s unanimous vote for official annexation of the West Bank.

Trump’s Jerusalem embassy declaration has bolstered Turkey’s guardian role of the Palestinian question.

Ankara has lately deepened its ties with Fatah, despite the latter’s dislike of Ankara’s coziness with its rival, Hamas. The current Fatah leadership welcomed Turkey’s denunciation of the June 2017 talks between Hamas and dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. Turkey’s active policy regarding Jerusalem’s future also delighted Mahmoud Abbas and his team, who paid more frequent visits to Turkey. Ankara still recognizes the Palestinian Authority as the legitimate government in the West Bank and its relief efforts are indispensable for Fatah leaders; indeed, Turkey’s annual assistance to Palestine is $10-20 million and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) has spearheaded major social and civic initiatives in Palestinian territories. TIKA builds homes for families whose houses were destroyed by Israeli attacks and aims to establish a school in every Palestinian town. The organization has already completed more than 70 projects in the past decade in East Jerusalem, a fact that led some Israeli lawmakers to halt Turkish aid activism.

Turkey’s ability to bring Hamas and Fatah together is doubtful, however. Fatah leaders, for example, recently protested Turkey’s hosting of a mass conference for Palestinians without consulting with them. Providing shelter for dozens of Hamas cadres, Turkey has a credible influence over Hamas; however, the group’s deep sense of insecurity and Israel’s harsh policies hinder Turkey’s efforts to accomplish meaningful change.

Washington’s Wrong Turn

The Trump Administration’s unwarranted Jerusalem embassy declaration has bolstered Turkey’s guardian role of the Palestinian question and opened a risky chapter for Turkey-Israel relations. Washington’s rush to implement the decision, despite the UN vote, will add fuel to the fire, as the inauguration will take place when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba—when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes, starting in 1948. For Ankara, such provocative symbolism indicates that the Trump Administration gives carte blanche—and a blank check—to Israel.

Given the upcoming critical elections in June and Erdoğan’s dire need for votes, the Turkish leader will not miss the opportunity to choose confrontation with an emphasis on Muslim identity—especially at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, during which the US embassy inauguration will take place in Jerusalem. Erdoğan may not move too far forward by fulfilling his earlier promise to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem, to reciprocate the American action. Yet, as the current death toll in Gaza has already reached an alarming level and protests continue, Washington may expect Ankara to downgrade diplomatic relations with Israel once again, returning to pre-2016 conditions.

It is obvious that Turkey’s move to make itself a pivotal campion of Palestinian interests and rights is finding an opportune moment at the present time. But with this accomplished, Erdoğan might find himself at seriously negative odds with the United States and Israel. Turkey’s maneuvers in Syria against US allies have already caused Ankara unneeded headaches and further complicated its relations with Washington. Turkey’s sharp criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, while well-placed and strategic, might also result in more tense relations with Tel Aviv. As Erdoğan looks to make himself a champion in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim worlds, he would do well to prepare for possible unwanted repercussions in the future.

1 Source is only available in Turkish.