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Following US President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights and signs that the Israeli government of recently re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may annex settlements in the West Bank, the slow death of the two-state solution to the Israel–Palestine conflict is accelerating. But there is a peculiarly Turkish angle to this. The politics of the peace process and the seven-decade history of Turkey–Israel bilateral relations have always been intertwined, and US adviser Jared Kushner’s initiative to resolve the Israel–Palestine conflict will be no different.
For years, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) courted ideological support on the proverbial Arab street by vowing to reverse decades of ineffective policies and tactics that fell short of delivering freedom, security and liberation to the Palestinians. The promise to promote the Palestinian cause – long a symbol of Arab weakness – reverberated as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was lionised as the ‘Gaza Conqueror’, the voice of the oppressed Muslim world, the leader who supposedly brought Israel to its knees. If the Kushner proposal heralds the death knell of Palestinian statehood, it will provide both Turkey and Iran with ammunition to stir up and command anti-Israel public opinion. Turkey will see this as an opportunity to reassert its bid for hegemony in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Ankara is agitated about hints that the yet undisclosed Kushner plan will deliver the final blow to the prospect of a two-state solution. According to Aydin Selcen, a Turkish career diplomat who has served in the Middle East, there is no chance that the current or any future Turkish government would support a plan that obliterated the prospect of Palestinian statehood.
A decade ago, Ahmet Davutoglu, a former Turkish foreign minister and prime minister, set out to fashion Turkey as a peacemaker imbued with the benefit of civilisational history and a natural anchor in the region. Addressing the long-standing Palestine dispute quickly emerged as a litmus test for Turkey’s foreign policy approach to the Middle East.
Yet whatever prospect once existed of Turkey serving as a peace broker was derailed with the Israeli raid of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that was attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip, on 31 May 2010. 10 activists aboard the vessel were killed, leading to a protracted legal and political battle that drove Turkish–Israeli relations to their lowest ebb. The debacle imposed an almost insurmountable handicap to Turkey–Israel relations, curtailing Turkey’s ability to appear as a credible peace broker. Moreover, the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy promised by Davutoglu dissipated quickly with the start of the Arab Spring, the unraveling of the regional order and the massive upheaval caused by the Syrian Civil War.
Bilateral relations were normalised when Israel and Turkey signed a rapprochement agreement on 28 June 2016. Nonetheless, ties between the two states – once referred to as the only democracies in the Middle East – have, at best, been stagnating. Kushner’s plan is, however, a wake-up call.
Three main factors will weigh heavily on Turkey’s response to a prospective peace plan that nullifies the possibility of Palestinian statehood.
First, despite vitriolic exchanges and insult-laced rhetoric rebuffs between the two leaders, Turkey and Israel share a common interest to enhance bilateral trade and energy cooperation. A key goal is for Israel to harness its reserves of natural gas to become a major energy supplier to Turkey. A proposed resolution to void all political, economic and military agreements with Israel and levy sanctions was introduced by opposition parties in the Turkish parliament, but was unanimously rejected by AKP deputies on 15 May 2018.
By 2017, Israel became one of the 10 most important export markets for Turkey, making it a key trading partner. But the extent of commitment to strengthen the economic partnership has been put on the back burner as both sides hurl criticism at each other.
Furthermore, Turkey’s relationship with Hamas sets it at odds with the regional bloc of states led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Yet it also presents an opportunity for Turkey to prove its pro-peace credentials. According to Metin Gurcan, a Turkish security analyst, the US is likely to expect Turkey to lend support by acting as an informal broker to persuade hardliner Muslim Brotherhood-linked elements of the Palestinian bloc to moderate its position and refrain from acts of aggression against Israel. However, what Turkey can realistically deliver may fall far short of any promises it initially makes.
Burak Bilgehan Özpek, a lecturer at the Ankara-based TOBB University, suggests that by putting pressure on regional states to put the brakes on sponsoring meddlesome armed non-state actors, the Kushner plan may place Turkey’s ties with Hamas under greater scrutiny, raising the cost of close ties, and possibly risk thrusting Turkey it into deeper regional isolation. At the same time, an American peace plan that effectively drains hopes for a future Palestine may make it harder for Turkey to delink its ideological ties with Hamas from its strategic interests vis-à-vis Israel and the US.
Taking a resolute stand on Palestinian statehood would force Turkey to confront the pro-Israel stance of the Trump administration at a time when the geopolitical order is being reshaped in the Middle East, with implications for the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Ankara can do little to confront Washington over its policy on Israel because this would jeopardise its military and security priorities in the wider region, particularly in northern Syria.
Turkey will continue to take a stand for Palestinian national rights, but the ruling AKP’s response will be most strident in the sphere of domestic politics. Promoting demonstrations about the plight of the Palestinian people has long been a ‘get out of jail free’ card for rulers in the Middle East, since this tends to obscure domestic political crises and legitimate grievances. Posturing on the Palestinian question is perhaps the most commonplace form of performative politics in the Middle East.
Although Turkey briefly served as a mediator between Israel and Syria over a decade ago and more recently expressed willingness to broker talks between Israel and the Palestinian front, it lacks credibility from the Israeli perspective while simultaneously facing stern objections from Egypt and other Arab states vying for influence. Turkey can hope to avoid isolation only if it pursues an even-keel, non-sectarian policy that is concerned with long-lasting rapprochement and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Given the state of Turkish domestic politics, this seems a desperately distant prospect, meaning that the drift in Turkey–Israel political and security relations is likely to continue.
Burcu Ozcelik is Leverhulme Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge.
BANNER IMAGE: Jerusalem Mount of Olives – The Wall accross Jericho road, seen from the Israeli side, 2012. Courtesy of Djampa/Wikimedia Commons
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.