The rule of Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey since 2002 has been characterized by active foreign policy with increased interest in regional issues, especially the Palestinian issue. However, the elections of 7/6/2015, which ended with AKP’s loss of parliametary majority have cast doubt regarding the future of the Party’s experience and its foreign policy, which remains a point of contention with the opposition parties in light of Ankara’s tactical retreat in a number of regional files.
After AKP secured a comfortable majority in the 1/11/2015 elections, it was given the chance to form a single-party government. Thus, there is more need to reconsider the foundations and determinants of Turkey’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue and to explore its susceptibility to be influenced by political developments on the local and foreign levels. In this context, three scenarios could be formulated:
First: Decreased interest in the Palestinian issue due to engagement in internal problems and as a response to regional and international pressures and factors.
Second: The continuation of the current Turkish stance without being influenced by major shocks and without accomplishing anticipated achievements.
Third: AKP’s benefitting from its position in the internal equation to achieve Turkish breakthroughs and successes regarding the Palestinian issue.
Apparently, the second scenario, which suggests persistence of the current Turkish position, is the most probable among the three scenarios.
Over tens of years, Turkey has perceived a foreign policy inspired by the path chosen by its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk where the most important features of this policy were to Westernize and modernize it. Ultimately, the relations with the US became the centre of Turkey’s political interests, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership determined its military and strategic interests, and the process of joining the European Union (EU) became the pivot of economic interests.
In the few times Turkey interfered in the issues of the region, especially the Palestinian issue, its interference harmed the Arab countries and served the interests of the Israeli occupation with which it had special relations. Indeed, Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel and in 1958 the two sides signed, with Ethiopia, the Peripheral Pact Treaty. Over years, Turkey was engaged in strategic and military cooperation with Israel in addition to its role during the first and second Gulf War.
Yet, the assumption of power by AKP in 2002 brought along a change—or rather a reinterpretation or reformulation—of Turkey’s general policies, including its foreign policy after it had redefined its role and position. Consequently, Turkey started to demonstrate more interest in regional issues, most noticeably in the Palestinian issue.
I. Justice and Development Party (AKP): An Overview
In his book “The Strategic Depth,” Ahmet Davutoğlu outlined his political perspective of an active and influential foreign Turkish policy, through many important foundations most important of which are:
1. The strategic depth: Davutoğlu believed that the role of Turkey was quite related and primarily dependent on its regional role, especially in three geographic regions: the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus, which Davutoğlu considered as Turkey’s strategic depth. Using the “bow and arrow” metaphor, he said that the further Turkey strains its bow in the east, the more vital its arrow extends in the western- international arena.
2. Zero problems: The zero-problem policy is important as a country suffering from enmity and hostility with its surrounding would not be able to develop positive and effective foreign policy. Thus, it needs to bring to zero problems with all its neighbor countries for all parties to benefit from a win-win situation.
3. Soft power: For Turkey to be a “central power,” Davutoğlu perceived commercial and economic relations and cultural-intellectual communication as more effective in this sense than hard power. Indeed, Turkey has benefitted over many years, at least until the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, from this soft power policy which was also welcomed in the region.
With this Turkish interest in the region and its different issues, the Palestinian issue got AKP’s special attention for many reasons, among the most significant are the following:
1. Common religious, cultural and intellectual ties between the Turkish and Palestinian peoples.
2. The historical background of the Palestinian issue and Turkey’s perception of itself as the heir of the Ottoman State, the last country with sovereignty over the Palestinian territories, consequenlty feeling special reponsibility towards this issue.
3. Harmony with the Turlish street which shows great sympathy with the Palestinian issue.
4. Turkey’s realization that the Palestinian issue is the key towards being accepted and influential in the region.
5. Turkey’s perception of the Palestinian issue as a winning card in the international arena for those sides that can influence it, and it undoubteldy needs to have such influence.
6. Ankara’s theory regarding its foreign policy depends on zero problems and economic-commercial relations, and it needs quiet environment, which is one reason why Tureky seeks to contribute to resolving the Palestinian issue.
7. The plight of the Palestinian people and their right to their land according to international law.
8. The ideological and intellectual background of most AKP leaders as Islamists who have emerged from the cloak of the “National Vision” or “Millî Görüş” which was established by the late Necmettin Erbakan, although the Party itself is democratic conservative and not “ideological” or “Islamist.”
These and other factors have participated in shaping a special relation between the new Turkish leadership and the Palestinian issue. Yet, this interest was never a reckless policy or an unlimited support but it was rather outlined by a number of important considerations, including:
1. Committing to the general outlines of the Turkish national security and its net of interests, which was reconstructed or reformulated by the AKP without completely opposing or repelling it. This means that interests were prioritized over ethics and principles although Ankara has tried its best to reconcile the two sides.
2. Moving within the international system and acting in line with the allowed limits in foreign policy according to the considerations of Turkey’s membership in the NATO and its EU membership file.
3. Commitment to the political solution of the Palestinian issue according to the two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative, and even going further to calling on Hamas repeatedly to participate in the political process and advising it to lay down its arms. Indeed, these calls were issued by former Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after the 2006 elections when he urged Hamas to lay down arms and move towards moderation. Similar calls were issued by former Turkish Foreign Minister, too.
4. Respecting the limits of political-media-financial support, especially in its relation with the Palestinian factions, while taking into consideration that financial support in particular can only be in the form of relief and humanitarian aid and projects for support of infrastructure.
5. Maintaining good and balanced relations with all Palestinian sides, and dealing with the Palestinian issue through the Palestinian Authority and President ‘Abbas despite Hamas’s victory in the 2006 legislative elections.
6. Not harming Turkey’s regional and international relations, especially with Israel before the political boycott witnessed between the two sides.
7. Gradually supporting Palestinians given that strength in domestic politics impact foreign policy. Thus, the engagement of Turkey (AKP) in the Palestinian issue has increased and its position in this respect has gained momentum with time lapse and with the accumulation of the AKP achievements coupled with internal stability, public support and an ability to play in the gray zones.
8. Turkey’s avoidance of direct and sharp confrontation with any side, and the difficulty of acting alone without regional partners, regardless of the high level of rhetoric.
9. A special interest in Jerusalem given its symbolism, Ottoman history and legal status in addition to the priority of such humanitarian files as the Gaza Strip (GS) blockade.
Based on the above, Turkey’s policy towards the Palestinian issue has seen gradual and increasing pace. Thus, while Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül and then PM Erdoğan visited Israel in 2005 in an attempt to mediate between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Turkish position assumed a new turn with the 2006 legislative elections and Hamas’s victory, where Turkey’s “confused” reception of the Movement’s leadership irritated Israel.
Later, the Israeli practices played a major role in straining bilateral relations starting from the GS offensive in 2008–2009 to Erdoğan’s stance at Davos Economic Forum in 2009, followed by humiliating the Turkish Ambassador in Tel Aviv, reaching to the political boycott between the two sides after the Israeli attack on Mavi Marmara in international waters and its murder of nine Turkish activists.
This rising trend did not last for long and it faced several obstacles the most important of which was the wave of Arab Spring revolutions that hit political balances and alliances in the region as much as it hit the foundations of Ankara’s regional policy.
This was so as Turkey’s strategic depth turned into an arena of unrest, and the “zero problems” policy was changed under the influence of revolutions and counter-revolutions into “zero tranquility.” Moreover, Ankara’s soft power failed to achieve major breakthroughs in the region after Turkey had become in the midst of a state of regional polarization due to its declared positions regarding the revolutions, especially the Syrian revolution and its following repercussions.
These successive developments and Turkey’s failure to achieve any outside achievement that reflects its perception of the solution, have led to two major results: Turkey’s reassessment of its foreign policy and its decreased interaction with the Palestinian issue. The contexts that contributed to this retreat of interest are:
1. Revolutions and counter-revolutions have led to the retreat of the Palestinian issue in the priorities of different concerned countries, including Turkey.
2. External pressure on Turkey due to its stances that reflected relative independence in foreign policy, especially regarding Syria, Egypt and Palestine.
3. Preoccupation with internal policy files at the expense of foreign policy in general and the Palestinian file in particular. These files include the Gezi Park events in mid-2013, then the corruption claims against the government and the AKP, followed by the stumbling of internal reconciliation process with the Kurds after the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) resumed its military operations.
4. Syrian developments have touched the red lines of Turkey’s national security given the possibility of Syria’s division and the harbingers of establishing a political entity (canton) for Kurds in the Syrian North.
5. The sharp deterioration in diplomatic relations with Israel after the attack on Mavi Marmara has prevented Turkey from playing the role of a mediator.
6. The tensed relations with a number of countries with influence on the Palestinian issue, especially Egypt following the coup, have led—besides tensed relations with Tel Aviv—to diminishing chances of Turkish interference. This factor is best highlighted in the role played by Turkey during the Israeli aggression on GS in 2012 during Morsi’s presidency and that role it played, or rather could not play, during the 2014 offensive on the Strip during al-Sisi’s presidency.
7. Palestinian political schism dwarfs the outcomes of any efforts put to support the Palestinian issue, despite the continued attempts to bridge the gap and the calls for unification.
8. Turkish regional isolation due to its standing on different issues, namely the Syrian and Egyptian files, and its loss of solid and sustainable alliances it could rely on in its regional policy.
9. The transitional phase in Turkey after the June 7 elections that stripped the AKP of its parliamentary majority thus inviting a phase of political instability, economic fluctuation and security tension. Consequently, Ankara focused on internal issues and presented some concessions in foreign policy.
These reasons together have led to tactical retreats from Ankara, including the acceptance, after years of rejection, that the US use İncirlik air base, and its actual engagement in the International Coalition Against ISIS after months of hesitation. It was also noticed that the Turkish stance facing al-Sisi regime declined, there was a soft tone regarding Russian interference on the southern borders and a tacit acceptance of Assad’s staying in power during the transitional period for the anticipated political solution.
On a parallel level, and despite the continued political support for the Palestinians in the international arena, especially in the file of accepting Palestine as observer non-member state in the UN then raising the Palestinian flag at the UN headquarters, the Turkish position has been recently closer to an acoustic phenomenon, regardless of the intentions, due to the aforementioned factors. This was clearly demonstrated in the recent Jerusalem uprising/intifada for example as the official stance was limited to some shy statements whereas Turkish mass demonstrations in support of the Palestinians were absent in light of pressing internal files and consecutive elections.
And even prior to that, the departure of a number of Palestinian (Hamas) leaders from Turkey to Arab countries was noticeable, whether through Turkish implications or in anticipation of any emergency before, during or after the elections. Additionally, the pace of Palestinian delegates’ visits to Turkey, at least public visits, has decreased during the latest pre-election period. However, the AKP has continued to pursue a calculated investment in its relation with Hamas, where it invited Hamas leadership, headed by Khalid Mish‘al, to participate in the Party’s fifth convention on 12/9/2015 as the Muslim public in Turkey highly respects Hamas and its resistance. Thus, the Movement’s participation in the Party’s conference was a public and electoral leverage for the AKP.
The runoff elections held on 1/11/2015 led the AKP again to an absolute parliamentary majority (317 out of 550 MPs), allowing it to form single-party government for the fourth time in a row. This round of elections was met with big interest in the Arab world, and the results were received with comfort and joy among many currents in a number of regional countries, especially the Palestinians, as they perceive Turkey as their “last fortress” in the region.
Thus, parallel to concerns about political vacuum and economic deterioration overwhelmed the Turkish local arena, there were fears of deep changes in Turkey’s regional policy in case elections led to opposite results. These fears were based on the consideration that Turkey’s foreign policy was and is still one of the major points of contention between the ruling party and the opposition. Any coalition government would as a matter of fact be subject to other members conditions, which would ultimately mean Turkey’s retreat from its usual regional stances.
Facing these results, it seems that Turkey’s approach to the Palestinian issue in the foreseeable future could develop within the context of three scenarios:
First: Decreased interest in the Palestinian issue: This decrease would not only be the result of the aforementioned reasons, which remain mostly unchanged, but also for the following additional considerations:
1. Turkey is expected during the coming period to focus more on urgent internal issues, such as the economic file, the military escalation, internal reconciliation and the new constitution.
2. Despite the final results in favor of the AKP, June 7th elections have already conveyed a message to the Party and Turkey implying an international punishment for pursued independent foreign policy. This means that such results are more likely to recur in the future, and in different forms, in case Ankara did not reconsider its positions.
3. There were many statements calling on Turkey to reconsider its foreign policy and to return to its “realism” and to a balanced communication “with all sides.” These calls were not limited to opposition voices or political analysts but were also issued by leaders in the ruling party and the government.
4. Turkey’s need for American-international support in countering terrorism and stopping political projects of Syria’s Kurds on its south borders.
5. The apathetic efforts to bridge the gap between Ankara and Tel Aviv and the frozen efforts of normalization in light of Ankara’s insistence on its almost impossible conditions (the third of which is lifting the GS blockade), which makes it difficult for Turkey to re-assume its role as a mediator.
6. Any future rapprochement between Turkey and Israel or Egypt might impose restrictions or limits on its role in the Palestinian issue.
Second: Accomplishing Turkish Achievements in the Palestinian Issue: There are several factors that would help to accomplish such achievements:
1. The outcome of the elections, which would lead to a stable and strong government more capable of interacting with foreign policy in general and the Palestinian issue in particular.
2. The diminishing Kurdish danger on the Turkish-Syrian borders after the elections, due to many contexts, especially the deterioration of American proclaimed support for Syria’s Kurds.
3. Diplomatic talks about looming political solution for the Syrian crisis with the consent of different regional and international sides, which would help reduce current international pressure on Ankara.
4. The Arab and regional consensus regarding the Palestinian issue, in most of its subsequent files, which would make it easier to approach the issue and cooperate in this sense despite sharp polarization.
5. Increased coordination among Turkey, Qatar and KSA, besides the direct dealing between Ankara and Egypt in many files (Syria, ISIS), which might open the door for a possible breakthrough in the Palestinian issue.
6. The current Palestinian uprising/Intifadah, which has brought the Palestinian issue again to the spotlight and which could be a unifying factor for different Palestinian parties if it was meant to continue and develop.
Third: Keeping the Status Quo: This means Turkish interest in the Palestinian issue would continue, especially regarding Jerusalem and the GS blockade file, within set media-political limits without development or deterioration.
Turkish and regional scenes suggest that the third scenario, which does not expect root and/or quick changes in Turkey’s approach to the Palestinian issue, is the most probable among the three aforementioned scenarios. This is so because internal and regional priorities would be imposed on the new government as de facto files, whereas Palestinians cannot provide Ankara, in the foreseeable future, with any major breakthrough that would encourage it to effectively engage in this issue.
Foreign policy is a will and a capacity, and regardless of the intentions of the AKP or the government it would form, Turkish tools capable of making a breakthrough are limited in the region. Thus, any anticipated surprises are only part of wishful thinking.
Besides, pragmatism and flexibility of the AKP policies, and calls for assessment and rectification of Ankara’s foreign/regional policy, suggest a phase of tranquility and stability in a number of non-urgent files, especially the Palestinian issue. However, any change in the foreseeable future would be a retreat rather than a development –according to the many aforementioned considerations. These would give the first scenario (deteriorated concern) an advantage over its opposite (increased engagement), while the chances for both remain weak.
1. Uniting Palestinians behind a unifying national program, and escalating the Intifadah in a way that facilitates the role of those supporting states.
2. Approaching the Turkish government with clear files and defined demands that support the Palestinian people’s steadfastness and their basic rights, while taking into consideration the complexity of the Turkish situation and relations.
3. Establishing relations with Turkey, and opening bridges of understanding and cooperation with different Turkish sides, on official, partisan and popular levels.
4. Activating the role of Turkish civil society organizations within a wide systematic context, and activating Palestinian popular work with the Turkish society. This would be an attempt to change the emotional-based support to one established on facts and data, and would add to the pure humanitarian Turkish approach to the Palestinian issue political and legal ones.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Said Elhaj for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.