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[Opinion] Why is Erdoğan’s Palestine policy ineffective?

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s anti-Israel rhetoric has increased his popularity not only at home but also in the Middle East; however, Erdoğan’s harsh criticism of the Netanyahu government has been of no benefit to residents of Gaza as hundreds have lost their lives, with Turkey’s attempts to stop Israeli attacks having failed.

In 2009 Erdoğan garnered the attention of Muslims around the world, becoming “a hero of Gaza” after having walked off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, following an angry exchange with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres over the Gaza war. “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” Erdoğan told Peres at the Davos forum.

Following the Davos incident, Israeli commandoes raided the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara, which was part of an aid flotilla attempting to breach the blockade of Gaza on May 31, 2010. Of course, the flotilla incident, in which Israeli commandoes killed nine activists, including eight Turkish nationals and a dual US-Turkish citizen, caused a deep rift between the former allies, and just after the flotilla raid, Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv and expelled the Israeli ambassador in Ankara. Then-Prime Minister Erdoğan called for Israel to be punished for the “bloody massacre.”

However, Erdoğan’s anger toward the Israeli government did not last long, and in a shocking move in 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdoğan agreed to normalize diplomatic relations. Israeli officials said the reconciliation deal would see Israel pay $20 million in compensation to the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara, with Turkey being allowed to deliver aid to Gaza via an Israeli port. BBC reported in 2016 that Turkey agreed to pass legislation protecting Israeli troops from the Mavi Marmara victims’ legal claims as well as prevent any military action or fundraising by Hamas’s operatives based there. Following the Turkish Parliament’s approval of the bill, Israel deposited $20 million into the account of the Turkish Ministry of Justice as compensation in September 2016. However, families of the victims killed on the Mavi Marmara criticized the Turkish government’s compensation deal with Israel, refusing to withdraw legal action ahead of the deal.

Muhyittin Yıldırım, one of the victims of the attack on the humanitarian aid ship, filed a case against the Turkish Finance Ministry at the İstanbul Civil Court of First Instance for pecuniary damages and 1 million Turkish lira in non-pecuniary damages in May 2018. “Unfortunately, the Israel-Turkey reconciliation agreement has weakened our hand, and this is the first time we feel weak against Israel. We are confused,” said Bülent Yıldırım, head of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the NGO that had organized the boat convoy to Gaza, criticizing Turkey’s deal with Israel. In response, Erdoğan said: “When you set sail, you need to ask me. Did you ask the prime minister before you embarked on a humanitarian mission from Turkey to Gaza? As a result of the agreement, we have guarantees from Israel that it will authorize the entrance of the humanitarian aid we send to Gaza.”

Following a raid by Israeli security forces on the Al Aqsa Mosque during the last days of the holy month of Ramadan, Erdoğan conducted phone calls with leaders from Qatar, Pakistan, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Indonesia, Algeria, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Libya and Oman as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin in the hope of gaining enough support to stop Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians. Erdoğan threatened Israel, giving the example of how Turkey supported Azerbaijan’s efforts to liberate its territories from Armenian occupation and stated that similarly Turkey would support Palestine against the Israeli offensive, the Hürriyet Daily News reported on May 14. Erdoğan was also able to convene an Extraordinary Session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to show solidarity with the Palestinians and condemn Israel, following the tension caused by the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, on December 13, 2017.

Despite his efforts at this time, Erdoğan’s call for international action against Israel failed to attract any attention from the international community. Turkish journalist Fehim Taştekin in his analysis in an article published by BBC Turkish concluded that despite Erdoğan’s efforts, the Turkish government wouldn’t be successful in mediation efforts between Israel and Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007. Taştekin highlighted how it was not the Turkish government but rather Egypt’s General Intelligence Service Director Abbas Kamel and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who conducted the recent ceasefire mediation between Israel and Palestinian groups. Hady Amr, deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and Joey Hood, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs at the US Department of State, worked closely with the Egyptian officials. Cairo’s efforts for peace in Gaza were welcomed by the US government as President Joe Biden made his first telephone call to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hours before the ceasefire and thanked Sisi for his efforts toward peace.

Since the normalization deal with Ankara in 2016, Israel prefers Turkey to have more influence over Hamas amid fears that the militant group will use financial and military support from Iran against Israel. Reports indicate that Iran’s financial support of Hamas averages $70 million annually. Erdoğan’s former minister Abdüllatif Şener mentioned that Israel labels Hamas and its leader as terrorists but continues to meet with and talk to Hamas leaders as they are elected by Palestinians. It is for this reason that Israel is in favor of Turkey becoming a mediator between Israel and Hamas.

It would appear that while Erdoğan raises a loud voice against Israel, presumably to garner a greater degree of support from his Islamist and nationalist constituents, he at the same time continues to strengthen economic and military relations with Tel Aviv, with the volume of trade between the two countries increasing from $1.4 billion to $6.5 billion since Erdoğan came to power in 2002.

Erdoğan had previously committed to visiting Gaza. Between March and June  2013 he on five different occasions shared specific dates of the visit; however, the Turkish leader failed to fulfill this commitment. Former Turkish president Süleyman Demirel, who was known to be very secular, had made time to visit Gaza and had performed the Friday prayer alongside former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in a Gaza mosque in July 1999, while Erdoğan, supposedly a staunch supporter of Gaza, has yet to keep his promise and make an official visit to Palestine.

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