Talking Turkey


by Karen Kaya and Moran Stern

On May 16, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President Barack Obama. Among the items on the agenda, the leaders discussed a possible Turkish role in future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Proponents of Turkish involvement in the stalled peace process believe that this might serve U.S. interests. They argue that Turkey can help restart the process; promote a Palestinian reconciliation between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip; and serve as a springboard for improved relations between Turkey and Israel, important American allies.

Considering the current strained status of Turkish-Israeli relations, the prolonged stalemate in the peace process and the turmoil in the Middle East, one must wonder: Can Turkey play a constructive role? Would Turkish involvement serve U.S. interests? Can Turkey influence Hamas to renounce violence against Israel and reconcile with the PLO? What are the costs if the process fails?

A careful positioning of Turkey in terms of time and role is required for Turkish involvement to yield results. The U.S. must heavily consider Turkey’s traditional position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its proximity with Hamas, its actual leverage over Palestinian politics and its limited tolerance to accept diplomatic failures.

The history of Turkish-Israeli relations shows a positive correlation with progress in the peace process. Due to Turkey’s historical and religious ties to the Palestinians, Turkey is more easily able to legitimize and maintain good relations with Israel when peace negotiations are already in progress. Conversely, Turkey finds it difficult to justify its engagement with Israel when Israeli-Palestinian relations are strained or turn violent. During periods of Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Turkey takes a critical line against Israel and sides with the Palestinians. Fluctuating Turkish attitudes towards Israel are clearly reflected in everything from political rhetoric attacking Israel to one-sided media coverage when the sides exchange fire.

This has been even more evident since 2002. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) efforts to position Turkey as a regional leader via engagement with its Muslim neighbors requires Turkey to play-up its Muslim identity in an effort to have a common denominator with the Muslim population in the region. Thus, almost every time Israel exchanges fire with Gaza, Turkey distances itself from Israel and sides with the Palestinians, often by venomously criticizing Israel. Somewhat ironically, Turkey’s efforts to emerge as a regional leader have limited its ability to play a balanced role, not to mention its ability to be a credible mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Moreover, decades of Turkish isolationism from Middle Eastern affairs raises doubts regarding its influence on critical regional issues. The last attempted Turkish mediation between Israel and its neighbors ignited a diplomatic catastrophe and called into question Turkey’s capacity to take such a role.

In 2008, Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu were personally involved in attempts to mediate between Israel and Syria. These talks were terminated when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza that December and the collapse of the talks marked the beginning of deteriorating relations between Turkey and Israel. Taking the failure as a direct offense to his prestige, Erdogan escalated his anti-Israeli remarks and provocations. The Mavi Marmara incident on May 2010 added fuel to the fire. In turn, Israeli criticism targeted the very idea of Turkish mediation with Syria. Given the delicacy and importance of maintaining good relations, Turkey should never have been involved in a complex process with uncertain prospects for success.

Since the outbreak of the Arab turmoil, Turkey has sided with Hamas – classified as a terrorist organization in both Israel and the U.S. – whose charter explicitly says that: “Israel … will remain erect until Islam eliminates it.” Davutoglu’s visit to Gaza during Israel’s Pillar of Cloud Operation against Hamas and Iran’s protege in Gaza, Islamic Jihad, last November was not followed with a visit to President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah. Erdogan’s June plans to visit both Gaza and the West Bank – as he declared at the White House, still raise doubts as to whether Turkey even wants to position itself as a reliable mediator that can work with Israel, because they do not include Israel.

The idea that Turkey can moderate Hamas has already proved futile. In 2006, Turkey hosted a senior Hamas delegation, insisting it could influence the organization and persuade it to recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce anti-Israeli violence. Clearly, Turkey cannot be blamed for Hamas’ ongoing terrorism, but the gap between Turkey’s objectives and its successes reveals the limited extent of its influence on Hamas and, subsequently, its real leverage on Palestinian domestic politics.

Only a couple of months ago, American efforts helped Israel and Turkey to renormalize their relations. Israel apologized for operational mistakes during the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident and agreed to pay compensation to the victims’ families. Turkey is currently working to repeal all legal procedures against Israeli soldiers and officials who were involved in the raid. Both countries agreed to restore their diplomatic relations and redispatch their ambassadors. Nevertheless, it is too early to conclude that a full Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is in place.

While officials from both sides are trying to finalize the clauses to officially end the crisis, the Israeli public remains highly suspicious regarding Turkey. Harsh comments about Israel by Erdogan and Davutoglu following Israel’s recent bombing of weapons’ shipments destined for Hezbollah in Syria have fueled Israeli suspicions that Turkey is not genuinely ready to change its attitude towards Israel.

Though the U.S. and Turkey have amiable relations, the Middle East is an area of divergence for the two. There is a fundamental incompatibility in the Middle East policies of Turkey and the U.S., which has been highlighted by the peace process and, to a greater extent, by Turkey’s relations with Hamas. Therefore, including Turkey in the process from the outset will only emphasize this incompatibility and potentially hurt U.S.-Turkey relations.

If Turkey is to play any credible role in the process, its relations with Israel have to be normalized and its anti-Israeli tone abandoned. There is also a profound need for confidence-building measures between Turkey and the Israeli public. One way in which the U.S. can help is by urging Erdogan to include Israel in his plans to visit the Palestinian territories. This can also further clarify whether Turkey is really interested in promoting peace. Failing to achieve these preconditions while involving Turkey in the peace process would be premature and risk sabotaging the burgeoning Turkish-Israeli rapprochement.

If Turkey is involved, the question is what role it ought to play to make it most effective and beneficial to the process. Here, timing is key. Turkey’s sensitive position in the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations and its need to see the peace process in motion to maintain good relations with Israel, suggest that if Turkish involvement is solicited it should occur after the process has been reinitiated. Choosing the right timing not only reduces the risk of tensions with the U.S. and Israel, but also opens a wider range of opportunities for a constructive Turkish role.

As a member of NATO and the Organization of the Islamic Conference and given its good relations with the Arab-Sunni world and its official ties with Israel, Turkey can promote a comprehensive Arab-Muslim effort, along with American allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, Jordan, Egypt, and even non-Middle Eastern Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia to support peace. Turkey should consider promoting a peace initiative in line with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which has recently shown signs of resurrection.

The Turkish private sector and business industry are experienced in joint ventures and various private-sector projects, and have a successful track record in helping economic revitalization in places such as the Kurdistan Regional Government, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Xinjiang region of China. The Turkish private sector can replicate its successes in improving public sanitation and infrastructure in the Palestinian territories, thereby improving the daily lives of the Palestinians as well as reflecting its empathy for the people.

Turkey can contribute to peace, progress, stability, and the weakening of radical groups by helping economic development through private sector investment projects in the West Bank and Gaza, helping Palestinian economic revitalization and infrastructure development. Joint economic ventures between the already interconnected Israeli and Turkish private sectors in fields such as telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, light industries and infrastructure can benefit all sides.

In weighing the odds that Turkey can play a direct role from the onset, against the likelihood that this will prove premature and tarnish Turkey’s credibility and prestige – maybe even leading to a backlash against Israel and the U.S. – the latter is more probable. A careful positioning of Turkey in terms of time and role is required in order to make Turkish involvement beneficial.

America has worked too hard to restore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its agenda and reconcile Turkey and Israel. It should work cautiously not to jeopardize those achievements.

Karen Kaya specializes in Turkey and the Middle East and is a national security fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Moran Stern is a lecturer at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the Program for Jewish Civilization and American University’s Center for Israel Studies.

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