Middle East

Turkey: Broker for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Wall painting in Palestine. (Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz)

"The Turkish government is serious about this agreement. That's why they've spent the past three years discussing it," said Oguz Celikkol recently regarding negotiations over the 2010 flotilla raid on Gaza by Israel, when he was the Turkish ambassador to Israel.

Ankara wanted three things from Israel: an apology for the attack, compensation to the victims and removal of the Gaza blockade. A massive energy deal between Turkey and Israel is subject to their success. The geopolitical imperatives are profound. A $2.2 billion undersea pipeline connecting Turkey to Israel's Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean is at stake. Highly lucrative for both countries, the pipeline would provide access to the European market for Israel.

Israeli political integration in the region, most notably with the Palestinians, seems key to realizing the energy deal. As there are outstanding concerns of clarification between Israel and Turkey about the flotilla raid, the underlying direction negotiations take between the two states could well boil down to Israeli relations with the Palestinians. "We should separate the process of political normalization from the courts," said Oguz Celikkol on Israel's reluctance to actuate compensation subject to criminal prosecution over the flotilla raid.

The third requirement of Turkey from Israel is more pronounced: removal of the Gaza blockade. Though Israeli restrictions have been eased, Israel still enforces a naval blockade on the territory. Meanwhile, Israeli recognition of the newly united Palestinian Party has yet to occur. Instead Israel is upping the anti by threatening massive settlements on contentious grounds. "The secretary-general calls on Israel to heed the calls of the international community to freeze settlement activity and abide by its commitments under international law and the roadmap," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman admonished.

Analysts and diplomats say both Israelis and Palestinians have strong economic and political incentives to reconcile. Unfortunately, Israel's theocratic stance and U.S. alliance too often supersedes the state's compliance to international law and economic incentives. Little wonder the dynamic of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians remains predominant, feeding off contentious theocratic undertones.

The Palestinian situation

"Despite the concerns surrounding the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, [this] can benefit Hamas on many levels, including the mitigation of any Israeli military escalation, in addition to the efforts Turkey is exerting to open communication channels through its European relations to remove the movement from terrorism lists," a Turkish official told Al-Monitor recently. Nevertheless, writers suggest that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's links with Hamas involve the Islamist background of his Justice and Development Party. Hamas, it seems, takes Erdogan as "the Caliph of Islam, the ruler who delivered Israel a blow and the one who took vengeance for the killing of Muslims in Syria and Egypt." To them, normalizing relations with Israel goes against such religious descriptions. According to Haaretz, emphasizing the political over the religious reduces Erdogan's status as a Muslim leader to a mere political ruler placing the interests of his people first. This too was noted by another Hamas official.

All of which begs the question, wouldn't Israeli recognition of the united Palestinian Authority downgrade the contentious radicalism portrayed by Hamas? With Turkey's help it seems possible. "By reconciling with Israel, Erdogan depicts himself as a leader of the Turkish people and not of the Islamic nation, and as a protector of the interests of the people who voted for him within the borders of his country, and not of the Palestinians who loved him," organizational bases of Hamas told Al-Monitor. They seem to be in the minority as the "growing inclination among Hamas is toward having the national dimension and partisan interests prevail over ideological, religious concepts in its political relations," a Hamas official recently said regarding Turkey. Moreover, Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of the Hamas political bureau, told Al Jazeera that the new government will endeavor to unite the West Bank and Gaza Strip agencies and organizations, with the exception of the Interior Ministry, whose operations are to be coordinated with the Arab League and Egypt.

More the reason for Turkey and Israel to progress political relations and deal with the new Palestinian authority. After all, there is a growing realization among Hamas that relations with Turkey go by Ankara's domestic and international calculations. That realization should illuminate the surer means to better progress Palestinians' national interest.

Already Turkey acts on the basis of one Palestinian authority. Istanbul held a Palestine International Forum for Media and Communication in April involving 400 writers and journalists. On the Palestinian agenda is a proposal for Turkish authorities to develop a waterway link between Gaza and the outside world, originally made by the Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights. All of which can only engender the geopolitical integration of political forces within a region that for too long has been bedevilled by sectarian foment and radicalized religious conflict.

"The most important thing is that this government will mean the end of this terrible division and it will reactivate the Palestinian democratic system," independent Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti said on the reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. And although things look fairly confrontational at present by Israel, steps can still be taken by the newly united Palestinian Authority to diffuse the Israeli backlash. After the Palestinians announced their unity deal in April, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted, "Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties." All of which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said the new united Palestinian government would adhere to.

Geopolitical context

The European Union, which gives substantial aid to the Palestinian Authority, has said it will support a new government of technocrats. As long as the Palestinian government stands by international principles of nonviolence, respects previous agreements with Israel and recognizes Israel's right to exist, the European Union will continue direct financial assistance to the Palestinians.

While previous "roadmaps" to peace seem geared towards a two-way street of mutual recognition between Israeli and Palestinian political authorities, they haven't actually led to that outcome. Through the geopolitical realm, however, it seems possible for Jewish Israelis and Islamic Palestinians to forge political integration transcending ancient theocratic rivalries. It may well be a case of two steps forward and one step sideways, but the broader scope offers greater potential to progress relations in a region undergoing environmental degradation and changing energy needs pertaining to all.

"The U.S. deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security," U.S. President Barack Obama recently said. At a joint press conference with Jordan's King Abdullah II, Obama said his administration has worked for months towards this end. Likewise, Erdogan talks of the importance of strong cooperation and friendship between Turkey and Israel.

Unfortunately, once again, Israel apparently has other ideas with its latest settlement plans. "Israel's move to establish settlements, which clearly violates international law and harms the vision of a two-state solution, is unacceptable," said Turkey's Foreign Ministry in the Zaman daily. Turkey, along with the international community in general, understands a significant step has been taken to establish peace with the formation of the unity government between Hamas and Fatah. For Turkey, Israel's "insistence on new settlements" raises questions on its willingness to ensure a lasting peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may well have gone too far this time. "We call on the Israeli authorities to reverse this decision and to direct all their efforts towards an early resumption of the peace talks," the European said in a statement. Even Israelis are now questioning Netanyahu's reasoning. "I think that the prime minister is losing his mind to make such a provocation now, which goes against the Americans more than the Palestinians," Meretz Councilman Dr. Meir Margalit said. "The main goal of this action is to destroy any chance for further negotiations." Margalit added that the decision unequivocally proves that Netanyahu is "unreasonable" and not a viable "partner for peace."

"He sees himself as the leader of the Jewish state, the Jewish people, against the world," Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu spokesman, said. "If you check Jewish history, it's part of our narrative, to be on the outside."

Maybe the time has come to come in from the cold, put the burden down and move on.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Laurelle Atkinson.