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Is there a chance of Turkey having a role in the Palestinian issue?

December 7, 2016 at 10:43 am

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas meets with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on July 18 2014 [Thaer Ganaim/Apaimages]

Turkey’s attention has turned back to the Middle East, with the ruling Justice and Development Party coming closer to the Palestinian cause for various historical, political, cultural and religious reasons; it is also hoping to reinforce its role in the region. Over a number of years, Ankara has had good relations with Washington and Tel Aviv, and it played a mediator’s role in a number of regional issues; the indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel in 2008, for example, followed by the tripartite agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme in 2010.

With regards to Palestine, Turkey still tries to mediate between the Palestinians and Israelis, while also helping in the Palestinian reconciliation efforts. This is primarily because it believes that the Palestinian division weakens the position with Israel and reduces Ankara’s ability to help.

Turkey more or less follows the international view that the two-state solution is the way forward, within the parameters of the Arab Peace Initiative. It also calls for Hamas to be involved in the process, for while Ankara makes a point of dealing with the official Palestinian Authority run by President Mahmoud Abbas, the result of the 2006 elections makes it legitimate to deal with Hamas as a major political player in Palestine; it was, after all, elected to run the PA. Despite the growing relations between the two, Ankara has never once bypassed the PA presidency; it always makes an effort to bring both sides together whenever possible.

Given the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with Israel from 2009 — and the severing of diplomatic relations in 2010 after the Israeli assault on the Freedom Flotilla — there is tension in US-Turkish relations, which coincides with the “Arab Spring” uprisings, especially the Syrian crisis. This is also caused by the development of Turkey’s foreign policy, which is slowly heading towards relative independence, as well as the crisis in relations with Egypt since the 2013 military coup which ousted President Mohamed Morsi. This diminished Turkey’s room for manoeuvre on the Palestinian issue. The most striking example of this is perhaps Turkey’s limited role in Israel’s 2014 war against the Palestinians in Gaza, compared to its more expansive role during the 2012 war in cooperation with Egypt.

Before addressing the latest developments in this regard, I must point out that Turkey’s role in the Palestinian issue is linked to three main factors: the domestic scene, the regional situation and how “heated” the Palestinian agenda is. In truth, all of the variables on these three levels greatly diminish the ceiling of expectations regarding the Turkish role.

From Turkey’s perspective there are two important issues in its foreign policy towards Palestine: the blockade imposed on Gaza, which is seen as a humanitarian cause, and the situation in Jerusalem, with its historical and political considerations; Turkey, remember, is the heir to the Ottoman Empire, which had sovereignty over the city for centuries. The Turkish parliament has embraced this and launched “Parliamentarians for Jerusalem” at its first conference a few days ago in Istanbul, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in attendance; this is an important indicator in this regard.

As far as the variables in this scenario are concerned, perhaps the most prominent is the resumption of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel after the signing of a normalisation agreement. The Israeli ambassador has returned to Ankara this week, days before his Turkish counterpart is due to go back to Tel Aviv. Although this move poses a strategic threat to Turkey and the Palestinian cause, and appears to benefit Israel, it also presents the possibility of Turkey playing a role through its relations with the government in Israel.

Ankara now has an avenue for talks with the Israelis about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and can try to increase the aid it sends to the Palestinians, which has no relation to the legal and political character of the ongoing siege. It will also be able to address some of the racist Zionist policies, such as the proposal to ban the call to prayer, which Erdogan spoke about with the Israeli president. This may even develop into a mediation role regarding prisoner exchange or any other issues Hamas may be party to, as the movement also has good relations with Ankara.

While there are those who hope that the Seventh Fatah Conference last week was a good omen for Palestinian reconciliation, positive signals came from Hamas and Fatah, with the participation of the former and the latter secular movement acknowledging and thanking Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. The past few weeks have shown that newly re-elected Fatah leader Abbas is only getting close enough to Hamas to help him in his rivalry with the former Fatah official Muhammed Dahlan, so we must not expect too much in terms of reconciliation. Once Abbas resolves matters within Fatah in his favour, relations with Hamas are likely to cool. The opportunity is still present theoretically, though, and may be reinforced after Fatah arranges its internal affairs and Hamas has its own internal elections, which are due to be held during the first half of 2017.

In short, there is no indication of any major breakthroughs in what Ankara can offer to the Palestinian issue if we take into account Turkey’s domestic and regional agenda, as well as the developments in Palestine itself. Nevertheless, the diplomatic links between Ankara and Tel Aviv leave the door open for Turkey to play a role when the opportunity presents itself. Meanwhile, it is continuing its interaction with the issues affecting Gaza and Jerusalem within specified limits defined by the aforementioned regional and international relationships.

Translated from Arabi21, 5 December 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.