As part of a larger effort to expand the views on Turkey Wonk, I am handing the creative reigns over to Gabriel Mitchell – an Israel Research Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem – for his thoughts on Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s proposed visit to Gaza. He can be followed on Twitter at @GabiMitch.
Without further ado . . .
It has only been a month since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and yet it feels like there is nothing left to say on the issue. Every analyst – from expert to novice – has contributed their two cents into the ever-growing world of punditry. If there was ever an international discord that could be likened to reality television, with its growing fandom and constant talkbacks, this would be it. There is nothing more entertaining than watching friends fight.
Yet for the many Israelis, “friendship” is a term that no longer applies to Turkey. Ever since Erdoğan’s 2009 outburst in Davos, and the subsequent Gaza flotilla nightmare, the public regards Turkey as former friend turned foe. It is as if Israel’s regional Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader overnight.
And the face of that Darth Vader is Erdoğan. The Israeli media took every opportunity to cast Turkey as yet another Middle Eastern country fallen under the spell of radical Islam, and as their familiarity with Erdoğan and his rhetoric deepened, this image gradually worsened; Turkey was no longer a victim but a catalyst for the expansion of Islamist rule in Tunisia, and subsequently Egypt. Erdoğan’s insistence to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in May (in time for the 3rd anniversary of the Gaza flotilla) has only reinforced this image.
Historically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been a sticking point for Turkey, and over the decades there have been numerous peaks and valleys. The passing of the 1980 Jerusalem Law and the First and Second Intifadas were all moments of tension between the two Middle Eastern democracies. Erdoğan’s continuous slander against the Jewish State – often in an effort to curry favor within his domestic audience – has, however, undermined Turkey’s ability to function as an unbiased role player within the conflict.
Erdoğan’s visit to the Gaza Strip would not only serve to undermine Israeli and American efforts to isolate Hamas – a terrorist organization that calls for Israel’s destruction – but would also likely undermine moderate Palestinian president Abu Mazen. Though his authority has long been in decline (last week reform-friendly Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned), he is the sole legitimate representative of a (future – and in the eyes of Turkey, current) Palestinian state in the eyes of the international community. In the short term the visit will also have a negative impact on negotiations with Israel, and undoubtedly, turn the majority of Israelis against future cooperation and engagement with Turkey.
More importantly, Erdoğan’s visit is going to have a negative impact on Turkey itself. The gains of being televised arm in arm with Hamas are not going to outweigh the damaging impact it will have among Western audiences tired with his displays of chauvinist demagoguery.
Turkey under the Erdoğan and the AKP has become a champion of Palestinian rights on the world stage. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s speech prior to the United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, an Abu Mazen achievement, went so far as to refer to Palestine as “a bleeding wound in the conscience of all humanity.” And yet despite this, it is Gaza City and not Ramallah that Erdoğan so desperately wants to see. If he is so invested in the successful development of the fledgling state, perhaps a visit to both political bodies would serve everyone’s interests (I am not even going to suggest a visit to Jerusalem which is equally necessary).
Interestingly, Bibi Netanyahu has remained largely silent on the upcoming visit. This can be interpreted in three ways: 1) that Netanyahu recognizes that his silence will be rewarded by a completion of reconciliation talks, 2) he is waiting for Obama to convince Erdoğan to back down (which he has in the past), or 3) that the Turkish premier’s visit to Gaza indirectly serves Netanyahu’s desire to keep Fatah and Hamas at odds. Though it is possibly a combination of the three and Netanyahu has always displayed a profound levelheadedness regarding his more temperamental Turkish counterpart’s actions, the biggest statement his silence infers is that the Gaza blockade, one of Turkey’s three demands in return for reconciliation, can no longer be legally defined as such.
It is far more likely that Erdoğan’s Gaza visit, much like his gestures towards Ocalan and the PKK, has far more to do with securing his presidential bid in 2014 than the future of peace in the region. Time and again he has proven to employ the illusion of soft power to garner domestic power. This does not appear to be any different. For Erdoğan to turn the corner in his political career he must find a way to exude balance and not asymmetry – selflessness over narcissism. The tantalizing distraction of being the guest of honor in Gaza should not be placed above the greater rewards of Palestinian reconciliation, Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, and certainly the hopes of renewing talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
As always, if you have comments, questions, or criticisms tweet @GabiMitch.
*The views are the author’s alone.