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There is a big difference between Arab and Turkish normalisation with Israel

January 6, 2021 at 1:15 pm

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on 2 January 2021 [Mustafa Kamacı/Anadolu Agency]

Media reports revealed last month that Turkey has been working to restore relations with Israel. On 9 December, Al-Monitor said that Ankara had selected a new ambassador to Tel Aviv, Ufuk Ulutas, 40, who studied Hebrew and Middle Eastern politics at Israel’s Hebrew University.

“We would like to bring our ties to a better point,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on 25 December. “The Palestine policy is our red line. It is impossible for us to accept Israel’s Palestine policies. Their merciless acts there are unacceptable.”

Erdogan said that Turkey’s problem is related to Israel’s leaders, whom he has accused repeatedly of carrying out crimes against Palestine and the Palestinians. “If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different. Our relations with Israel are not cut off at the intelligence level – they continue.”

Critics of Turkey slammed Erdogan as a hypocrite because he criticised the recent normalisation deals between a number of Arab states and Israel, while working to restore his own relations with the occupation state. I believe that normalisation between the Arab states and Israel is very different to Turkey’s relations with its former strong ally.

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Turkey’s diplomatic crisis with Israel dates back to 2010, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered commandos to board the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship which was part of an international flotilla trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip. During the attack in international waters, nine Turks were killed and over 50 other activists were wounded; a tenth Turkish citizen died later of his wounds.

Despite this, commercial and intelligence relations continued. Trade between the two countries exceeded $5 billion in 2014. The diplomatic standoff continued until 2016, and soured again in May 2018, when Ankara recalled its envoy to Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador over the deadly response to Palestinian protests in Gaza against US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

US Embassy in Jerusalem on 18 October 2018 [Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images]

US Embassy in Jerusalem on 18 October 2018 [Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images]

Why is it acceptable for Turkey to have diplomatic relations with Israel, but not the Arab states? Look at their respective responses to Israeli violations of human rights and international law.

Turkey was one of the first countries to recognise Israel when it was created in 1948, but its relationship does not mean that it keeps silent about its crimes. It is not based on support for Israel, right or wrong.

However, the Arab states have been opposed to recognising Israel in public, but behind closed doors they have secret talks and relations and abandon the Palestinians. This is obvious when we see Egypt playing a major role in imposing Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip; see Syria and Jordan expelling Palestinian resistance leaders from their capitals; and see the Gulf States imposing restrictions on Palestinians or imprisoning them.

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Normalisation with the Arab states goes beyond politics into culture and identity. The UAE’s Majid Al-Sarrah and Bahrain’s Amjad Taha, along with several others, visited Israel last month and described it as a democratic state and called its army — which kills and wounds Palestinians and demolishes their homes on a daily basis — peaceful with heroic soldiers.

According to Palestinian academic Malik Shukri, “This is not a matter of normalisation. Relations between the Arab states and Israel are about Israelisation or Zionisation.”

In Turkey, Palestinians are allowed to work and act more or less as if they are in their own country. “I do not say that they are Turks or enjoy the same rights and live in the same conditions as the Turks, but they are living freely and they can do whatever they want in Turkey,” explained Hasan Sabaz, chief editor of the Turkish newspaper Doğruhaber. “The leaders of the Palestinian resistance are not only living in Turkey, but they are also being protected.”

However, it is not so easy for Palestinians to enter most of the Arab countries, and anyone appearing to be a resistance leader is detained or expelled. Israeli agents have even been given the opportunity to assassinate Palestinian activists.

In Kuwait, which has recently championed the defence of the Palestinian cause on the international stage, trying to sponsor a Palestinian orphan is far from easy. Saudi Arabia started to crack down on charities helping the Palestinians 20 years ago. However, despite Israel’s insistence that Turkey must stop such humanitarian assistance, particularly in Gaza, Turkish charities have been pouring aid to the Palestinians by helping the poor, building schools and hospitals, and supporting university students and others in need.

Unlike the Arab states, which normalise relations with Israel to serve Israeli interests, Turkey does so in its own interests. “There are commercial, intelligence and political gains,” Turkish journalist Zaid Farol told me.

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“Erdogan is not concentrating on foreign policy alone, but also on domestic policy,” added Sabaz. “He is trying to create a balanced foreign policy in order to serve Turkey’s external and internal interests.” The journalist noted that good relations with Israel reduce international hostility against Turkey among the world powers, including the US and most of the EU countries. At the same time, this reduces the anger of his critics at home, mainly the Kemalists. Arab normalisation, however, is intended to make sure that the Israeli occupation is normalised, and Gulf petrodollars flow into Israel.

“Ankara still wants to be a part of the Western alliance while maintaining its good relations with Russia and countries in the Middle East. This is clearly what a multipolar foreign policy requires,” wrote Nagehan Alci in the Daily Sabah a few days ago. “This policy benefits not only Ankara but also the US and the European Union as well, since Turkey is strategically located at a point where it can play a very important role between the Middle East and the West.”

Speaking to VOA, analyst on Turkish-Israeli affairs Selin Nasi said that, “Given the anti-Turkish opinion prevalent in the US Congress, Turkey might be hoping that Israel can neutralise the opposition and help Turkey win Washington’s ear again.”

In Turkey, the final word about this issue lies with the people. If they do not like the government’s policies, they can vote against the president who engineered them. In the Arab states, though, if the people do not want to have relations with Israel and make their feelings known, they will simply disappear. Anyone who says that there is no difference between Arab and Turkish normalisation of relations with the occupation state is simply misguided.

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