By Furqan Kaya
Turkey is a significant actor in its region, even if the West is split over what region the country actually belongs to; a member of NATO and, bizarrely, (like Israel) playing football in European competitions but not accepted as a member of the EU. Nevertheless, Turkey’s geopolitical and geostrategic position means that it has interests in events affecting the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. As a result, Turkey has been trying to get involved in every issue across multiple regions as much as possible.
Palestine-Israel has been a serious challenge for policy-makers since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. The occupation of Palestine and the resultant flood of refugees to neighbouring countries, in 1948 and again in 1967, has led to the deaths of many Palestinians men, women and children – at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers/colonists.
According to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmad Davutoglu’s theory, Turkey has to maintain an interest in the former Ottoman Empire’s territories and use diplomatic means to seek permanent peace for the Holy Land. The ongoing oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli occupiers has thus posed a problem for Turkish Foreign Policy and given the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a special place therein.
Ever since the creation of Turkey as a nation state in 1923 the country has sought to position itself politically with the West while demonstrating distinctly non-Western attitudes towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Prior to 2002, Turkey’s inconsistent governments meant that proper attention could not be paid to foreign affairs affecting the regions adjoining the state, including the Middle East. After 2002, however, Turkey has sought to improve relations with its Arab neighbours as well as the wider world. Such a development has seen Turkey’s standing rise amongst the Arab states.
An example of this important change was the Turkish parliament’s decision not to send troops to Iraq in 2003. This led to George W. Bush being so shocked that the United States suggested that Turkey would no longer be a strategic ally. This fact notwithstanding, Turkey took the opportunity to develop relations with Iraqi ethnic and religious groups.
Moreover, Turkey’s response to the West’s anxiety about Iran’s perceived nuclear programme has not followed the Western script. Whereas Western states mention the possibility of sanctions against Iran in an effort to intimidate President Ahmedinejad’s government, Turkey maintains that the only way to bring Iran back into the fold of the international community is through the use of diplomacy.
Another important aspect of Turkey’s increasingly important role in the Middle East is its work behind the scenes as an arbitrator and facilitator for talks between Syria and Israel; this was the position until the Israeli assault against and invasion of Gaza in December 2008-January 2009. Turkey felt that its efforts with peace negotiations were effectively destroyed by Israel’s aggression, and Syria pulled out of the negotiations. Syria’s Golan Heights – occupied by Israel SINCE 1967 are very significant because Israel controls vital water resources originating there.
Turkey believes that it has to play a more meaningful role in the reconciliation process between Israel and the Arab world. The government in Ankara supports the “two state solution” for Palestine and Israel. Ideally, Turkey would approve of Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders; Jerusalem would have international status; and Israel would repatriate all Palestinian political prisoners.
At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2009, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shocked the West by storming out after a heated confrontation with Israel’s president when he felt the latter was being given too much of an opportunity to defend Israel’s aggression in Gaza. Ever since, Muslims around the world and the leaders of the Arab countries have considered Erdogan as a defender of Palestinian rights.
Turkish policy is to seek unity between the Palestinian political factions, although it regards Hamas as a problem in the reconciliation process; Ankara believes that Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah is more open to peace. Nevertheless, Turkey wants to unify Hamas and Fatah because a divided Palestine cannot resist Israeli sanctions. A unified Palestine in every respect is essential for peace to be achieved.
Turkish Foreign Policy relies heavily on Palestinian President Abbas staying on in the role, even though he has said that he intends to step down at the next election (which he has postponed indefinitely in any case). In terms of seeking peace with Israel, Abbas has played a central role, favoured by the Israelis and their Western backers primarily, one suspects, because he is prepared to continue to talk even though he never actually achieves anything concrete for his people. Despite this obvious drawback, the Turkish government regards Abbas as an important player in the search for peace and his continuation as president of the Palestinian Authority is a key part of Turkish Foreign Policy.
It is quite possible that Palestine-Israel negotiations will continue in Ankara, away from undue pressure from Western governments. Turkey believes that its historical background of authority within the Middle East gives it a unique status to act as a serious intermediary. Diplomacy is the central feature of Turkish Foreign Policy in the Middle East and if Turkey can achieve peace and, in the process, lose neither Israel nor Palestine, its position and status as a regional power will be confirmed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.