By Dr. Ahmed Al-Burai
If Deniz Zeyrek, a famous leftist journalist in Turkey, was to say, “The state of Israel and its people are undoubtedly sincere friends of Turkey and our condemnations until now are aimed at some extreme illegitimate actions of the Israeli government,” he would be condemned as a conspirator or a traitor to the Republic of Turkey. It was a surprise, therefore, that the statement was actually made by Omer Celik, the spokesperson of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). He made his comment in a press release after talks about the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel.
The emerging deal was announced a few days after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that reconciliation “would be good for us, Israel, Palestine and the entire region.”
Due to the recent crisis between Turkey and Russia following the shooting down of a Russian fighter last month, the Russians imposed strict sanctions on the $31 billion bilateral trade between Moscow and Ankara. In response, Turkey tried to apply countermeasuresand create new markets for its products. This worked in that it increased its exports to the EU and the Middle East, but it has had to exert serious efforts to source new supplies of natural gas.
Amidst regional turbulence, Turkey has found itself dithering between protecting its interests in a more utilitarian way and going on with its declared policy of promoting the increasing need for democracy in neighboring Arab countries. All of this while also standing by the oppressed nations of the region who are believed to share cultural, historical and geographical commonalities with the Turks.
Every choice Turkey makes has its trade-offs that will inevitably affect it regionally and internationally. A central factor in this context is the Turkish relationship with Hamas and Israel. This cannot be comprehended and assessed from a one-dimensional angle due to the overlapping issues and the diverse perspectives and consequences that the Arab Spring produced.
The pending reconciliation between Israel and Turkey reflects Ankara’s policy of requesting a role in the Middle East, especially after the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent hostility of the current regime in Cairo headed by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi towards Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip.
Before Sisi, Egypt maintained a minimum level of relations and managed to balance the relationship with Gaza after Hamas’s 2006 election win. The Mubarak regime succeeded in demonstrating its influence through its role in mediating in a range of conflicts between Hamas and Israel, ending with the prisoner exchange in 2011.
Thus, Turkey is looking forward to killing many birds with one stone through reconciliation with Israel. Such an agreement will send strong messages to Turkey’s allies in Europe and the US, in addition to the economic win-win aspects by which Turkey would substitute Israeli gas for Russia’s. It is worth-noting that Turkey depends on Russian gas for 60 per cent of its domestic requirements.
However, the pending agreement followed by the ruling party’s rhetoric has prompted recurring question marks over Turkey’s political premises. Turkey is stereotyped, even among some of the Islamists, as a Machiavellian, ideologically-pragmatic political entity that acts on interests rather than morality, although that libels the ruling party and its founder who is still, presumably, its influential leader, President Erdogan. When the leader of Hamas was invited to Ankara and two extended meetings were held with the president and prime minister, it sent multi-dimensional messages through the compliant local media.
The first message was intended to reassure Turkish public opinion that Ankara is not imposing any agreements on the Palestinians and is not a mere utilitarian regime that will easily forgive those who killed its civilians in the brutal attack on the Freedom Flotilla in 2010. That is why three conditions are always stressed by pro-government channels: compensation for the victims’ families, a full apology from Israel and, most importantly, lifting the siege of the Gaza Strip.
The second message targets Israel itself by stating bluntly that Turkey is not initiating any step in the Palestinian issue without the consent of Hamas, and that it will not succumb to Israeli blackmail.
Finally, the proponents and opponents of the neo-Islamist pragmatism should get the message that Turkey is not as it is being portrayed. It is, rather, an independent country that has a leading role to play in regional affairs and which refuses to be a puppet for any other power.
This was established clearly by Ankara’s rejection of the extradition of Saleh Al-Arouri, a Hamas official who is accused of orchestrating attacks against Israelis in the occupied West Bank. In addition to its insistence on lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip, this would be a major obstacle to any agreement with Israel.
As stated earlier, according to economic analysts, the Turkish government has been working hard on shuttle diplomacy with Ukraine, Qatar, Kazakhstan and other countries in an attempt to open new opportunities and reduce its dependence on Moscow’s gas. Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio that the government is looking into the opportunity of rekindling relations with Turkey, which would be a valuable market for its gas industry; this, he explained, would break the ice and revitalise relations between the two countries. In turn, he expects, Turkey would give up prosecuting Israeli officers and drop the criminal charges it has filed against them, which has caused serious problems for their freedom of movement in Europe and various other countries.
Most importantly, Israel cannot keep Turkey at bay for ever; it knows that Hamas holds a number of its soldiers and is looking for a second prisoner swap deal. The revival of Turkey-Israel relations would facilitate Ankara’s role as a mediator with Hamas.
I believe that a preliminary reconciliation between Turkey and Israel would, if it succeeds — and contrary to expectations — give a boost to Hamas, as it would provide a lifeline in the midst of a set of extraordinary conditions dominated by political ambiguity, a lack of genuine alliances, regional turmoil and a shortage of funding sources.
That’s what prompted the Deputy Chairman of the Hamas political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, to address the Iranian people and the Ayatollahs in Tehran in an attempt to repair their damaged relationship after a serious rift between the Sunni resistance movement and the “Axis of Resistance”. Haniyeh’s message coincided with a formal obituary posted by the movement’s military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, for the “Martyr of Palestine and the free world”, Samir Kuntar. He was the doyen of the former detainees liberated from Israel’s prisons and killed, it is believed, by an Israeli missile strike in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana a few days ago.
Condolence letters sent by Hamas infuriated some its followers and many activists who believe that the last drastic shift of Hezbollah and its militants — to support Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad — removed them from the “Axis of Resistance”. Others defended Hamas’s dogmatic principle that sees it sympathis with those who have sacrificed for the cause of Palestine and are targeted by Israel.
In light of these polarisations ignited by Facebook activists, the possible agreement between Turkey and Israel was announced. Bear in mind that Hamas has been operating under an unbearable blockade that has paralysed every aspect of life in the Gaza Strip, while its members in the West Bank have been targeted by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The movement lost Iran as a strategic ally, along with Tehran’s military and financial support. It also gambled and lost on support from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and is now being exposed, as are all Palestinians in Gaza, to collective punishment by the government in Cairo, which has urged Israel not to respond positively to the Turkish condition of lifting the blockade on the coastal enclave. Hamas has not succeeded in finding alternative allies within the Sunni world to replace Iran. Furthermore, the Sunni countries have not put any pressure whatsoever on Egypt to ease its own role in the blockade.
As such, the expected deal between Turkey and Israel will help Hamas to catch its breath and may open new channels of communication (and mediation) between Gaza and the outside world. This, in turn, will help to ease public pressure arising from the insufferable economic conditions endured by the Palestinians.
According to Steven A Cook, a researcher on Turkey at the Council on Foreign Relations, the compromise deal between Israel and Turkey is a diplomatic priority for the United States. The US administration has been putting great pressure on both parties to push for an end to the rift. The tension with Russia has made Turkey realise that it needs its Western allies.
The White House has praised the efforts to reach an agreement. “We would welcome this step in improving relations between two of our key allies in the region, particularly given our common interests and the challenges we face,” a senior official said.
Reconciliation between Israel and Turkey will re-establish the latter as one of the pivotal partners in the Middle East, which is in dire need of a country such as Turkey to help maintain regional security. It is evident that Turkey used to be Israel’s most crucial friend in the Muslim world, and the two still share many strategic interests, including containing Iran. The terms of any rapprochement will be very interesting indeed, especially if Turkey’s conditions are accepted.
– The writer is a lecturer at Istanbul Aydin University. (This article was first published in Middle East Monitor, MEMO)