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One phone call, two versions of the discussion

July 29, 2020 at 10:20 am

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas (L) hold a joint press conference in Ankara, Turkey on 28 August 2017 [Mehmet Ali Özcan/Anadolu Agency]

Yesterday, Palestine’s Wafa news agency and Turkey’s Anadolu published two separate articles about the phone call between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the Palestinian coverage of the call, neither the Hagia Sophia nor the decision to turn it back into a mosque were mentioned. The report by Wafa did not mention that Abbas congratulated Erdogan and the Turkish people on this step, or that he expressed his hope that the historic development would bring good to the Islamic world, but the Turkish coverage of the same phone call did.

The Wafa report focused on Abbas expressing his thanks to Erdogan for “his country’s support of the Palestinian people and their just cause, as well as its rejection of the Israeli colonial annexation plan which violates international law”. Erdogan stressed the importance of “bolstering international efforts aimed at thwarting the Israeli annexation plan which violates international legitimacy, stressing that Turkey will continue its efforts in this field.” Abbas also briefed President Erdogan on the communication between Fatah and Hamas in order to unite the Palestinian position, which was met with praise from the Turkish leader. He, in turn, stressed his country’s position in support of the Palestinian people and encouraged reconciliation efforts. The coronavirus and Eid al-Adha were also discussed during the call, but I do not know who brought them up, although I understood from the context of the news article that it was President Abbas.

We may not know exactly what passed between the two men, but I rule out the possibility that the Communications Directorate in the Turkish presidency has fabricated the whole story. It may have exaggerated the words of praise and welcome, and perhaps Abbas even said them. This is not the first time that official statements will have been released which reflect a difference of priorities between the parties concerned. This happens all the time, with each side seeking to highlight what it believes are the priorities or main points in question. As long as they have the upper hand, some Arab governments do not hesitate to fabricate positions and attribute them to the other party. I have heard, for example, about senior level meetings where the topic of polygamy has dominated the discussion, only to hear official statements the next day filled with expressions of support for the struggle of the Palestinian people and commitment to their inalienable rights to their lands, sanctities and Jerusalem.

READ: Abbas welcomes Hagia Sophia move

Wafa’s failure to publish anything about Abbas’s praise for the Turkish move regarding the Hagia Sophia reflects Palestinian embarrassment at the decision. There is embarrassment for the international community, the European Union, Cyprus and Greece; and embarrassment for the Christians of Palestine, where the oldest and most sacred churches in the world are located.

Palestine, in particular, is taking a risk if it welcomes the Hagia Sophia move, because it gives weight to the principle of legitimising a fait accompli. This is dangerous in the Palestinian context, as the basis for Israel’s whole raft of colonial policies is to impose facts on the ground in preparation for them being legitimised. This is the rule that underpins the deal of the century and its implementation. The matter is not limited to Christian churches and holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but extends to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque too.

Turkey should have understood the sensitivity of the issue of the Hagia Sophia as far as the Palestinians are concerned and should not have made it appear to have been the focus in coverage of the presidential phone call. We assume that the authorities in Ankara will understand the Palestinian media’s failure to cover this aspect of the discussion if it did indeed happen, although we do not expect anything from President Erdogan, who did what he did in Istanbul with his eyes fixed firmly on the ballot boxes in the upcoming elections.

READ: European Muslims hail opening of Hagia Sophia Mosque

This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 28 July 2020

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