3) The Turkish pursuit of a prominent and leading role in the regional and global arena was not limited to the AKP party’s Islamic roots, nor to the deep civlizational Turkish and Ottoman/Islamic roots; but rather to various other national, cultural and civilizational dimensions in Turkey’s regional environment.
4) Turkey has succeeded in establishing good relations with the different regional parties. This was the fruit of AKP’s delicate and skillful foreign policy. Even at the peak of its sympathy with the Palestinian people, Turkey has maintained good relations with Israel on all political, economic and military levels of cooperation. This increases Turkey’s chances of playing prominent mediatory roles, because of the good relations it enjoys with the different warring parties. This was observed in the recent past, when Turkey was a channel of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
5) The Turkish stance towards the Palestinian issue has never been conditioned upon its recognition of Israel as a state; even in the policies adopted by the AKP party officials.
On one hand, there are around 60 agreements in effect between Turkey and Israel in the military and security domains, and Turkey is Israel’s biggest economic partner in the Islamic world. In 2009, the Israeli exports to Turkey totaled a sum of $1.073 billion, while the imports were estimated at a sum of $1.388 billions. We note however that these two figures have significantly dropped from the previous year (2008), where the exports dropped by 33% and the imports dropped by 24%.
On the other hand, Turkey adopts the international resolutions regarding the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and the just settlement of the refugees’ issue. Turkey argued against the Israeli Occupation measures that aim at Judaizing the eastern part of Jerusalem, and against settlement activity in the West Bank.
But until today, no single Turkish official statement or position have denied or even doubted the existence/recognition of the Israeli state.
6) As Turkey gave more priority to its historical and civlizational roots, in addition to economic and geo-strategic considerations, the Turkish policy towards the Arab and Islamic world has evolved, and so did the relations between them. Turkey has further worked on fostering these relations by establishing trade and economic partnerships with many Arab countries. Trade exchange between Turkey and the Arab world is estimated currently at $31 billion annually, while that between Turkey and Iran is estimated at $10 billions. And as long as the Palestinian issue remains central to the Arab and Islamic worlds, the Turkish foreign policy investment in this issue would advance its relations with these worlds, and vice versa, i.e., advanced relations would increase the Turkish role in the Palestinian issue.
7) In light of the current Turkish ‘zero-sum’ policy in foreign affairs, Turkey has worked on solving the conflictual issues that have existed in its relations with its neighbouring countries, especially Arab and Muslim countries. This paved the way for Erdogan’s government opening out to the Middle East region. For Turkey, the Middle East has now become the new strategic realm where its presence is welcomed; rather than Europe, which had never opened up its gates for Turkey.
As a result of the above-mentioned factors, the Turkish stance towards the Palestinian issue has evolved in the following directions:
– It provided the Palestinian people with moral and financial support to continue their resistance and endurance against the Israeli occupation, because it constituted an explicit gesture of official support from a regional power that enjoys good relations with the US, Israel and many Western and Arab countries. The positive Palestinian public response reached the extent that some demonstrators in Gaza called upon the Turkish army’s intervention to defend them against the Occupation.
– It supported the argument that Hamas has the legitimate right of representing the Palestinian people because it came to power through democratic and transparent elections. In this regards, Turkey has called upon the ‘democratic’ West to abandon its double-standard approach to the Palestinian issue, recognize the results of the elections and their implications, and thus acknowledge that any negotiations for a political settlement that ignore Hamas’s position, essentially ignore a wide spectrum of the Palestinian people and are destined to failure.
– It made Israel seriously considers any further measure it may take against Gaza Strip or Hamas, as it could harm the Israeli-Turkish relations.
– Although Ankara called on Hamas to abandon ‘violence’, stop firing rockets and join the peace track, its insistent calls for lifting the siege off Gaza Strip have indirectly supported Hamas to maintain its governance in the Strip.
Challenges and Obstacles
The Turkish regional role regarding the Palestinian issue still faces a set of obstacles and challenges, the most significant being:
1) The Israeli disappointment, revealed in attempts to hinder the mediatory role of Turkey. Netanyahu refused this mediation and suggested instead a French mediation.
2) American and European concerns, of Turkey overstepping its “acceptable” limits, and realizing a role that could threaten their own interests in the region.
3) Fuelling Arab sensitivities against a strong Turkish regional role, especially in Egypt. The Egyptian regime considers that the Turkish stance that “understands” Hamas, supports the Islamic movements and consequently the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt-the major opposition movement.
4) The Turkish regional activity, its tight coordination with Syria, and its establishment of good relations with Iran while advocating of its nuclear program, which provoked some “moderate” Arab countries. This was visible during Erdogan’s visit to the Arab world in the first days of the Israeli Aggression against Gaza, where political dissidence between Turkey and some of the countries visited, made it harder for Erdogan to achieve his goals, and forestalled the efforts to support the Palestinians more effectively then.
The Importance of Turkey in Contributing to the Palestinian Issue in the West
The Turkish membership in some Western alliances, namely the NATO, and its good relations with Israel and the US, have been seen by some analysts and intellectuals as a prospective source of support for the Palestinian issue in these realms. Although this is somehow an exaggerated ‘hope,” two remarks should be made in this context:
1) Turkey’s membership in the NATO is critical for the latter, because of the Turkish role in many issues extending from the Balkans till Afghanistan. This gives Turkey some room for pressuring concerned member countries of the NATO, to deal with the Palestinian issue in a just and fair approach.
2) Turkey’s maintenance of good relations with Israel, including military relations, implies a mutual interest. Israel needs Turkey in many regards, especially as a Muslim country. Thus Turkey can pressure Israel to improve the situation in Gaza Strip, and to be seriously committed to negotiations and peaceful settlement according to the UN resolutions.
The Limits of the Turkish Role
On the opposite hand, the Turkish role is also limited by many factors. Most significantly:
1) The Turkish maneuver regarding Gaza specifically, could not surpass -for various considerations- the Egyptian role. Ankara did acknowledge this fact in a statement made by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu: “The Turkish role could be assistant or complimentary to the Egyptian role, but it will not replace it” [quote translated].
2) The Turkish aspiration to establish good relations with all Arab sides, and to be on the same distance from the various parties, will eventually limit its ability to support Gaza or Hamas. Thus, the Turkish support will be limited to political and media support, humanitarian sympathy and aid. Turkey will not adopt bold stances that could corner or embarrass the ‘moderate’ Arab camp regimes, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf countries. In addition, the Turkish role will be generally limited by international legitimacy and resolutions.
3) Turkey views the Palestinian unity as a necessary condition for regional peace. This also limits the Turkish ability to further establish or strengthen its ties with Hamas. Turkey does not desire for these relations to break the Turkish chord with Abbas. And while supporting Hamas, it fully recognizes his PA presidency and deals with him respectively.
4) It is true that Turkey maintains good distance from all parties involved in the Arab Israeli conflict, which increases its chances in playing a mediatory role. But on the other hand, Turkey lacks the cards with which it can seriously pressure these sides, be them Syria and Israel, or Israel and the Palestinians. Yet more, even in case an agreement was reached, Turkey could not provide the guarantees needed to ensure its implementations. Hence, the possible Turkish mediatory role is limited to logistics and intermediation.
5) In addition, Turkey is susceptible to pressure from Israel and Western countries, to abandon -or at least retreat from- its supporting stances to the Palestinian issue. This was the case when it was pressured to recognize the Armenian genocide in the US and in Sweden, and when attempts were made to replace the Turkish intermediation with other countries’ intermediation. Such pressures were also exerted through attempts of provoking internal Turkish dissent against the AKP government, such as through extremist Turkish parties. In addition, there were threats to ban the AKP party through the constitutional courts, or even threats to bring down its rule by violence.
6) The Turkish multi-dimensional policy and Turkey’s opening out to the Arab and Islamic world, does not imply Turkey’s abandonment of its earlier strategic pursuit of membership in the European Union (EU). On the surface, no explicit condition or policy exists for the EU’s dealing with the Palestinian issue, but on-ground, this issue should be considered delicately in the Turkish foreign policy, especially in its regional policy in the Middle East.
In foreseeing the future scenarios with regards to the Turkish regional role and its implications on the Palestinian issue, three possible directions are to be examined:
1) Orientating towards the ‘Refusal’ Front
This scenario is projected on the assumption that Turkey will foster and strengthen its relations and strategic ties with Iran, Syria, and the more general resistance and ‘rejectionist’/ ‘refusal’ front; including Hezbullah and Hamas. Thus, its relations with Israel will weaken to a minimum.
Support for this scenario is backed by arguments about the Islamic background of the AKP party, and that in fostering such relations, Turkey will gain additional support in the Arab and Islamic worlds; especially that this could be understood in the context of ‘building a new Middle East that serves the regional nations’ interest’, and ‘weakening the Israeli role in the region and further desolating Israel’.
Chances of this scenario however remain weak, because such a role will prevent Turkey from pursuing other important priorities on its national and foreign policy agenda, including its relations with the EU and the US.
2) Orientating towards the ‘Moderate’ Front
This scenario is projected on the assumption that the AKP party will continue to present the case for a ” ‘moderate’, ‘civilized’, Sunni Muslim party, that can nonetheless rule in the western-desired sectarian approach and be accepted to the EU membership.” It is on this basis also that the US, and along with it other Arab countries in the ‘moderate’ camp, left the space open for a Turkish regional role; on hope that this role will constitute the pillar in facing the rising Iranian ‘Shiite’ role.
Support for this scenario is backed by arguments that Turkey officially adopts the peaceful settlement option, and confines its stances to UN resolutions and international legitimacy; and that Turkey’s relation with Israel and its membership in the NATO, makes it nearer to the Arab ‘moderate’ camp rather than Syria and Iran.
Add to the above that Turkey’s foreign policy is tightly connected to Erdogan’s ability on achieving internal success on the Turkish national growth and achievement level. This ability is in turn confined to many curbs and limitations, most significantly: the army and the judiciary institutions, and the Kurdish issue. Washington will not save any chance to employ these factors directly or indirectly, to pressure Erdogan’s government and serve its own regional interests.
On the other hand, the Turkish regional policy doesn’t align perfectly with that of the ‘moderate’ camp, as the former is more independent, and less prone to submit to the pressures. The Turkish regional policy heavily relies on investing Turkey’s relative weight and potentialities in achieving Turkey’s economic, political and strategic interests in the region.
This weakens the chances of observing this scenario. Not to mention that such an orientation would conflict with one of the Turkish regional foreign policy priorities, that is playing the intermediary role in regional conflicts.
3) Maintaining the Middle-Man Position
This scenario is projected on the assumption that Turkey will be able to lever its regional impact and power, and the level of independence in its policy and decision-making process; along with its ability to maintain its current middle-man position with all involved regional and international sides. This would be at the expense of Turkey accepting not to have a leading strategic role instead. It does fit with the AKP party’s multi-dimensional foreign policy, and its seeking of nullifying all the problems that existed earlier between Turkey and its neighbours. This will be a prelude for opening the borders and for future economic complementation, which is hoped for by the reach of the year 2023 according to the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu.
As stated earlier, a multi-dimensional Turkish regional policy implies that Turkey will not take sides at the expense of losing relations with other sides. Turkey’s NATO membership, its relation with Israel and the US, and its aspiration to join the EU, will continue to constitute major determinants of its foreign policy; although these relations will be weakened somehow. Turkey could also invest in strengthening its relations with Arab and Islamic countries to serve its strategic interests, and to provide alternative growth opportunities in light of the EU’s refusal to grant it membership.
On the regional level, and according to Turkey’s new foreign policy determinants, it is not expected that Turkey will join any regional camp. Most probably, it will focus on fostering political and economic relations within all the available opportunities, be it with Arab, Islamic, Turkish, Russian, or Balkan parties, etc.
With regards to the Palestinian issue, the public and official support and sympathy is expected to increase, but the official Turkish stance will remain in the mean time confined to traditional stances of calling for a just solution according to international and UN resolutions, and the Arab initiative.
– Ensuring that the Turkish official and public support for the Palestinian issue continues.
– Benefiting from the Turkish expertise in international political realms, in supporting the widely agreed upon Palestinian rights in issues such as the Separation Wall, Settlements, the Judaization of Jerusalem, and lifting the siege off Gaza Strip.
– Benefiting from the Turkish aspiration to play an intermediary role in its regional foreign policy, in bridging the Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi rift, as a prelude for establishing a common Arab reference/authority that auspices a national Palestinian reconciliation.
– Supporting the Turkish efforts to lift the siege off Gaza Strip and push forward the reconstruction process in the Strip; and the implementation of Turkish projects inside the occupied Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip).
– Calling upon the Turkish government to skillfully invest its current presidency of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in activating the organization, including Al-Quds [Jerusalem] Committee, to protect Jerusalem, its people and its cultural and civilizational identity, against the fierce Israeli Judaization campaigns.
Al-Zaytouna Center would like to express its sincere thanks to Dr. Mohammad Noureddine for writing the draft text on which this assessment was based.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, Arabic version published on 30/4/2010