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Can Turkey and Israel reconcile?

By Pinhas Inbari
web posted November 21, 2016

Turkey and Israel signed a reconciliation agreement in June 2016, which was controversial in Israel. The agreement's main points are Israeli compensation for the families of those killed in the Marmara flotilla, the cancellation of Turkish claims against IDF soldiers, and Turkish access to Gaza. Before the ink had dried on the pact, Turkey was rocked by a coup attempt that failed. Then, Turkey was absorbed in the Iraq crisis when the anti-ISIS coalition and Shiite government in Baghdad launched an attack on Mosul, leaving Turkey out of the picture.

Where do these events lead Israeli-Turkish relations? To answer, another question first must be addressed: Where is Turkey heading?

Turkey is in the midst of defining its identity – as Turkish first or Muslim first with a "neo-Ottoman underpinning. If Turkey chooses its "Turkish" identity, a true Israeli-Turkish reconciliation may be possible, but if Erdogan chooses his neo-Ottoman Muslim path, obstacles may block the reconciliation.

Their relations are also affected by Turkey's ties with the Palestinians, which have several dimensions: Turkey's ties with Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the reactions in Gaza and the West Bank to the developments involving Israel.

There are also repercussions for Israel's gas deal, but this paper will not deal with them.

Eyes on Gaza

Turkey's entry into Gaza has several implications:

  1. A challenge to Turkey's enemies in the Middle East: Egypt and Iran.
  2. A challenge to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The agreement on Gaza was reached behind the PA's back, and the opening of the Ashdod Port to Turkey means the PA has no access point to Gaza. For example, Egypt restricts the Rafah crossing by demanding that it be manned by personnel who are loyal to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
  3. Placing Gaza's rehabilitation in Turkey's hands pulls the rug out from under Europe's status – it was Europe (Norway in particular) that initiated the Gaza rehabilitation conference in Cairo ­– and from under the businesses that Ramallah chose to carry out the rehabilitation.

Thus, with regard to weakening the PA, which is waging an all-out diplomatic assault on Israel, Turkey's entry into Gaza has its advantages. The same pertains to the possibility of making Ashdod Port a port of exit, which would relieve pressures in overcrowded Gaza.

Undermining Europe's status also has its advantages given Europe's problematic positions toward Israel.

There is, however, a problem involved in posing a challenge to Egypt, as well as Iran. While Egypt has grown very close to Israel, it is an enemy of Turkey and does not look favorably on Turkey's entry to Gaza.

Challenging Iran, too, may have negative outcomes. If Iran feels threatened it may play a spoiler's role in Gaza, as has occurred in the past.

Turkey's Involvement in Jerusalem and the West Bank

Turkey is already well entrenched in east Jerusalem, acting without hindrance in the Israeli capital. Although currently there are no frictions between Turkey and Israel, they may well emerge, particularly in light of the elements that are cooperating with Turkey in east Jerusalem.

Furthermore, Turkey's involvement is also likely to affect the West Bank. That poses a danger to the PA, but it also challenges Iran, which may support anti-Turkish groups by, for instance, facilitating Hizbullah/Shiite infiltration and strengthening the Popular Front and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; indeed this is already happening. In other words, Israel will find that the conflicts now tearing the Middle East apart are at its doorstep.

The coup attempt shed new light on Turkish-Palestinian relations. Fatah and Hamas expressed common support for Erdogan, while Palestinian leftist organizations linked to Syria did not. The Popular Front and Islamic Jihad, which favor Iran, issued statements criticizing the Israeli-Turkish agreement. The statements claimed that Turkey had violated its commitment to remove the blockade from Gaza, and that its commitment not to prosecute the IDF officers is a fatal blow to the Palestinians' efforts to turn Israel into a war criminal. Fatah's representative in Lebanon, Abdullah Abdullah, leveled similar criticism at the agreement. Yet, unlike the pro-Iranian fronts, Fatah was pleased that the coup failed, as we shall see.

Fatah's Abbas Zaki, a known Iran supporter, told Al Mayadeen TV in Lebanon that if Turkey abandons the Palestinians in the wake of the agreement with Israel, it will mark the end of the Palestinian issue. He expressed confidence that this will not happen, saying that the agreement is a fruit of circumstances that will change and that Turkey supports "every Palestinian" (and not only Hamas).

Turkey and Hamas

Although Turkey and Iran are the two regional powers with the greatest influence on Hamas, instead of coordinating the influence, they fight over it. The struggle between Turkey and Iran has also divided Hamas between Turkish supporters and Iranian supporters, with the pro-Turkish leadership linked to the West Bank and the pro-Iranian leadership situated in Gaza and Lebanon.

The Turkish entry to Gaza disrupts these balances, and it is still too early to assess how this will affect Iran's behavior. Israel must pay attention to this issue because such struggles usually work to its detriment.

One thing that has damaged Turkey's reputation in Gaza is the "blockade." Although Turkey has insisted that the "blockade" be lifted, the agreement on its use of Ashdod Port under Israeli supervision was understood as a concession on the blockade in return for direct Turkish benefits.

In contrast to the pro-Iranian fronts, the pro-Turkish Hamas mouthpiece in Gaza, Al-Risala, published an interview with Hamas foreign relations chief, Osama Hamdan, in which he tried to defend the agreement. He said Turkey had not finished its struggle to get the blockade lifted and meanwhile had succeeded to have it "eased." Hamdan's statements are interesting because he is, in fact, considered a pro-Iranian Hamas official.  

Despite Hamas' public support for Turkey, Israeli Palestinian-affairs expert Alon Eviatar told the Galei Zahal radio station that Hamas did not look favorably on the agreement. Since Iran cut back its support for Hamas, Turkey has been its main support, and the organization has relied on Erdogan's backing in all of its struggles against Israel. The loss of that Turkish cushion will likely, in fact, lead to an escalation toward Israel aimed at creating a new equation.

Before the agreement was signed, a Hamas source said that the movement put its trust in Turkey, was leaving it to Turkey to announce the details of the emerging agreement, and that Israel had also informed Turkey that it was interested in giving Turkey access to Gaza in order to ease the residents' lives and improve the infrastructures. 

Not long before the agreement was finalized, Ismail Haniyeh said11 Hamas had not conceded on a port: "No one does us favors, it is our right, and we will attain it by force." In other words, he was threatening a war that would create an equation whereby Gaza would be given a port. Haniyeh was probably briefed on the talks and drew up a "warning list" beforehand. He made the statements in a Gaza mosque on June 3, and the agreement was signed on June 27.

The Hamas official most identified with Turkey is Khaled Mashal. He is not popular in Gaza, and the Gaza leadership's rejection of him leaves him to fight for his status in the West Bank, where he was born near Ramallah. At one stage he considered quitting the Hamas leadership. Turkey, however, talked him out of it. For one thing, it is not acceptable in the Muslim Brotherhood for a leader to step down; for another, Turkey saw Mashal as a key ally in promoting its aspirations in the West Bank. 

Turkey's support for Mashal has come to the fore in the initiation and planning of West Bank terror attacks. Mashal's right-hand man Saleh al-Aruri,  also originally from the village of Aroura near Ramallah, has been the guiding hand of the attacks.

The operational arm of Mashal's branch in Turkey was the Qawasmeh family in Hebron,13 and the terror attacks they perpetrated may have been meant to have a "spoiler" effect for Gaza at Israel's expense. It was the kidnapping of three young Israelis in Gush Etzion14 in the West Bank that led to Operation Protective Edge, which inflicted huge damage on Gaza and created the need for the rehabilitation effort there.

Israel insisted that Turkey close the Hamas offices there and expel Aruri and his associates. It is not clear whether this has really happened.15   New reports suggest that the office still exists. The Palestinian faction that supports the Gulf States, headed by Muhammad Dahlan, opposed the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation. It was undoubtedly impelled to do so by the Gulf States, which oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and Turkey.

Impact on the PA Municipal Elections

Turkey's entry into Gaza has no influence on the municipal elections there, directly or indirectly, but it does indirectly influence the West Bank elections.

Hamas' problem in West Bank elections has been that its operatives are revealed to the Israel Security Agency (Shabak) and to the Palestinian security mechanisms. That was a mistake Hamas made in the 2006 elections.

The Israeli-Turkish agreement led Hamas to believe that Turkey would protect the election results and would not allow Israel and the PA to cancel them as they did in 2006. It is very possible that Erdogan and Mashal agreed on these matters during the Israeli-Turkish talks.

Meanwhile, though, two things happened that were likely to alter Hamas' view of the West Bank elections, and they are both connected to Turkey. One was the coup attempt, which distracted Turkey from the Palestinian issue as it focused on its internal struggles instead, including the supreme priority it accords to the Kurdish problem. The other was Israel's arrest of the Hamas representative on the elections committee, Hussein Abu Kweik of the el-Amari camp in Ramallah. The arrest made clear to Hamas that Turkey would not provide protection to Hamas representatives who are elected, and that if they are removed and arrested as occurred after the 2006 elections, there is no power that can shield the election results, including Turkey.

The fact that Turkey's involvement was on the agenda at all, however, also prompted Iran to get involved. According to some reports it has supported the pro-Assad leftist organizations, such as the Popular Front, and foiled Hamas' attempts to create a joint list with them.

Palestinians Support for Erdogan against the Rebels

Despite the fact that at this stage Turkey is not involved in the West Bank, the enthusiastic responses from both Fatah and Hamas to Erdogan's quashing of the coup will strengthen Turkey's desire to widen and deepen its involvement in Jerusalem and in the West Bank as well.

Fatah's support is expressed on its members' Facebook pages. For example, one of them wrote: "If Turkey leaves the regional equation, the result will be Israeli-Iranian hegemony in the region."

The Big Problem: East Jerusalem

The real difficulty likely to arise between Turkey and Israel, however, concerns east Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Turkey has ties with the most extreme elements, such as former mufti Akrama Sabri, inciter Raed Salah, and Hamas. If it decides to protect them against Israel to assume leadership of the "al-Aqsa is in danger" campaign, thereby promoting its status as a regional Islamic power, Israel will find itself facing a problem.

Thus, the future of Israeli-Turkish relations depends on the question: will the reconciliation with Israel, along with the lessons of the failed rebellion against him, lead Erdogan to be less "Islamic" and more "Turkish?" In other words, will he prefer Turkey's interests as a state to those of the Muslim Brotherhood?   ESR

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.






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