Wednesday, 19 June 2024

Siding Openly with Hamas, Turkey is Sidelined on Settlement Talks Featured

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By Barçın Yinanç

June 18, 2024

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan missed the opportunity to play a constructive role in the Gaza conflict. Unabashedly siding with Hamas, Erdoğan has repeated the mistake that his government committed when the Arab revolts broke out in 2011. Promoting the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East proved to be a diplomatic disaster from which Turkey still struggles to recover. Yet ideological optics has once again blinded Turkey’s ruling party, with AKP officials failing to see that neither Western countries nor the Arab countries are prepared to concede a role for the Islamist Hamas in any future settlement. The relentless insistence on siding with Hamas while displaying open hostility to Israel diminishes Turkey’s chances to be an active player in any negotiations. Being sidelined makes Turkey more aggressive and thus consolidates its image as an untrustworthy actor.

 

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BACKGROUND: On May 20, 2024, the International Criminal Court's (ICC) prosecutor Kharim Khan requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defense chief and the three Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, the group’s military chief Mohammed Deif and Hamas's political leader Ismail Haniyeh. Two months earlier to the day, on April 20, Haniyeh met with the Turkish President Erdoğan in Istanbul. Haniyeh received a warm welcome, and the president’s communication office released footage showing Erdoğan greeting Haniyeh genially, hugging him and members of his delegation.

Haniyeh was reported to have been in Istanbul during Hamas’ deadly attack on October 7, and footage shows him praying in celebration with a Turkish flag behind him. Hamas has an office in Istanbul but Haniyeh’s presence in Turkey during the mass killings of Israeli civilians has not been officially confirmed. Although it was reported that Hamas members had been asked to leave Turkey following October 7, this was denied – albeit in confusing wording – by the presidential office.

Turkey’s Islamists have of tradition been markedly more sensitive about and committed to the Palestinian cause – and ferociously more critical of Israel – than the center-right secular elites. Indeed, this is something that the Islamists share with the radical left. Yet the fact that the Palestinian cause is identified as a “Muslim cause” does not in itself account for the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) affinity with Hamas, as there is no comparable commitment to other “Muslim causes” such as the plight of Muslim Chechens or Uighur Turks. Turkey’s governing party has an ideological and emotional bond with Hamas because the organization is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is embraced as a member of a political family with which the AKP identifies. That in turn explains why Hamas is prioritized rather than the Palestinian Authority, which officially represents the state of Palestine that Turkey recognized already in 1988. The secular Fatah has in fact never been embraced by Turkish Islamists.

Turkish governments that preceded the AKP also avoided designating Hamas as a terrorist group, but its acts of terror in the 1990s were nonetheless recognized as such and were unequivocally condemned by Ankara. The statements by the Turkish foreign ministry underlined that terrorism was unacceptable whatever the motivation. This was generally the stance of the AKP as well in its early years of government, when the party was careful to appear to be on the same page with Turkey’s Western allies. Also, the AKP government unsuccessfully sought to mediate between the two rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. But the more the divide grew between Hamas and Fatah after the former won elections in Gaza in 2006, the more the AKP leaned in favor of Hamas. Meanwhile, Ankara’s relations with Israel deteriorated. Relations took a nosedive after the 2010 killing of nine Turkish nationals in the Israeli army’s raid on the flotilla to Gaza organized by a Turkish NGO.

IMPLICATIONS: Hamas's attack on October 7 came at a time when Turkey was in the process of normalizing its relations with Israel. In fact, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to visit Ankara. Initially after the attack, President Erdoğan took a balanced stance and avoided heated rhetoric, but he subsequently shifted his stance. This was likely because the intensity of Israel’s indiscriminate military operations in Gaza, as well as Hamas’ refusal to release the hostages it had taken, killed any hope that Erdoğan may have had that there was going to be an early resolution of the crisis. In addition, Erdoğan was sidelined by both the U.S. and by regional players. Turkey’s hastily drawn draft plan only ten days after October 7 that envisioned a guarantor system – with a prominent role for Turkey – to facilitate a solution failed to gain any traction. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken bypassed Turkey on his first two visits to the region, while his main objective during his stops in Ankara in November 2023 and in İstanbul on January 2024 was to have Turkey lift its veto against Sweden’s entry to NATO, rather than to include Turkey in the discussions about the war in Gaza.

Finally, with the approaching local elections in March 2024 and with public reaction against the civilian death toll in Gaza mounting, Erdoğan dramatically stepped up his criticism of Israel and of Netanyahu. While Turkey reportedly played a role in ensuring the release of Thai hostages, Erdoğan appears to have been unmoved by the pleas of Israeli families that he similarly intervene to ensure the release of their family members. The letter that the Israeli families sent to Erdoğan was leaked to the press by the Turkish side, and although Turkish officials assure that they keep working on the hostage issue it is not clear to what extent Ankara rose to the opportunity.

Yet while Erdoğan sharpened his criticism of Netanyahu and Turkey and Israel recalled their respective ambassadors, he nonetheless turned a deaf ear to calls to stop the lucrative Turkish trade with Israel. This stance of relative moderation dictated by economic imperatives was abandoned after the AKP suffered a devastating defeat in the March 31 local elections. AKP notably lost two million votes to the Islamist New Welfare Party, which had called for drastic measures against Israel. The Turkish government subsequently halted all trade with Israel, and the governing party’s fear that its Islamist rival will consolidate its election gains has led it to assume an unabashedly pro-Hamas stance.

Thus, Erdoğan compared Hamas to the Turkish nationalist resistance movement in the 1920s. “Hamas is the same as the Kuva-i Milliye [National Forces] in Turkey during the war of liberation," he said on April 17. The president subsequently claimed that Israel would “set its sights” on Turkey if it succeeded in defeating Hamas in the Gaza Strip. “Unless it’s stopped… this rogue and terrorist state will set its sights on Anatolia sooner or later,” he added.

Turkey also took the “political decision” to apply to the UN International Court of Justice to be a co-plaintiff in South Africa’s case against Israel. “We will apply once we finish our legal work,” said Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. The move was criticized by Turkish former diplomats who suggested Turkey should have decided on the merit of joining the case after having made the appropriate legal and political evaluations.

Meanwhile, Turkish diplomacy stepped up efforts to alleviate Western concerns about Hamas, presenting it as a legitimate interlocutor. In the words of one former Turkish diplomat, "Turkey has taken upon itself the mission to convince the world that Hamas should be accepted as an interlocutor.” Turkey argues that Hamas’ military wing should be disregarded in favor of its political wing. In that vein, Foreign Minister Fidan went to Qatar to convince the Hamas leadership to present their perspectives regarding the two-state solution. “Unfortunately, Israeli propaganda about Hamas, which tries to describe [it] as a terrorist organization... rather than as a national resistance movement, finds favor in the West and some actors in international public opinion," Fidan said after his meeting with Haniyeh on April 17. Fidan claimed that Hamas is willing to disband its military wing once a Palestinian state is established within the 1967 borders. AKP officials argue that the changes made in 2017 to the Hamas charter and the acceptance of 1967 borders amounts to an indirect recognition of Israel.

CONCLUSIONS: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan missed the opportunity to play a constructive role in the Gaza conflict. Unabashedly siding with Hamas, Erdoğan has repeated the mistake that his government committed when the Arab revolts broke out in 2011. Promoting the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East proved to be a diplomatic disaster from which Turkey still struggles to recover. Yet ideological optics has once again blinded Turkey’s ruling party, with AKP officials failing to see that neither Western countries nor the Arab countries are prepared to concede a role for the Islamist Hamas in any future settlement.

ICC prosecutor Kharim Khan’s arrest warrant for Hamas’ leadership is a serious blow to Turkey’s insistence that Hamas is a legitimate representative of the Palestinians in Gaza and that it should have a place in the negotiations for a two-state solution as well as a role in a future Palestinian state. The relentless insistence on siding with Hamas while displaying open hostility to Israel diminishes Turkey’s chances to be an active player in any negotiations. Being sidelined makes Turkey more aggressive and thus consolidates its image as an untrustworthy actor.

Barçın Yinanç is a foreign policy commentator at the Turkish news site t24

 

 

Read 1059 times Last modified on Wednesday, 19 June 2024

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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