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[OPINION] Erdoğan not willing to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who played an important role in the Ukraine-Russia grain deal last month, visited Ukraine and met with President Volodymyr Zelensky and UN Secretary-General António Guterres in Lviv on Aug. 18 to discuss ways to end the conflict in Ukraine.

Erdoğan mediated a peace treaty between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights in 2008, and the Turkish leader together with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva played a major role in Iran’s uranium swap deal with Western countries in 2010.

But the powerful mediator Erdoğan has never attempted to find a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. He only made several promises to visit Gaza. That never happened.

The Palestinian people, who have lived through occupation, exile and war for a century, have always had great expectations from Turkey due to historical ties since Ottoman Turks ruled Palestine for 401 years.

But Turkey’s secular leaders had disappointed the Palestinians when Turkey became the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel in 1949.

Ankara had strong military, trade and diplomatic cooperation with Israel for almost 50 years until Turkey’s Islamist leader Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

Erdoğan became a staunch supporter of the Palestinian people, but his populist, pro-Palestine rhetoric has never borne any fruit for the Palestinians.

Erdoğan walked off the stage at the World Economic Forum in January 2009 after an angry exchange with Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres, over Israel’s offensive in Gaza, and he permitted the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla to attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. But a few years later, Erdoğan changed his opinion on the Mavi Marmara, with the normalization of relations with Israel, saying, “Did you ask the then-prime minister to bring humanitarian aid?”

Erdoğan’s anger towards Israel peaked when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens and one dual Turkish-US citizen on board the ship in international waters.

However, Erdoğan’s anger towards Israel even encouraged Tel Aviv to act more recklessly toward the Palestinians as Israel has launched five major military assaults on Gaza and killed thousands of Palestinians including many women and children during Erdoğan’s 20-year-long rule.

Former Turkish Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış warned in an article published in Arab News on May 23, 2021 that Erdoğan wasn’t helping the Palestinian cause since he fell victim to his deep-rooted, negative feelings for Israel.

 Yakış wrote that the Palestinian conflict is no longer between Israel and Palestinian fighters in Gaza, or between Israeli security forces and West Bank Palestinians, but rather has been taking on new dimensions, with clashes between Jews and Israel’s ethnic Palestinians on the rise.

Hence, Erdoğan’s anti-Israel rhetoric only exacerbated the conflict between Palestinians and Jews.

It seems that Erdoğan’s policies instead have helped Israel’s international recognition for the past two decades, and an announcement made last week for the resumption of full diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel will further strengthen bilateral relations.

“The renewal of relations with Turkey is an important economic asset for the citizens of Israel. We will continue to act and strengthen Israel’s international status in the world,” an official announcement released by Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office said.

The agreement includes the return of ambassadors and consuls to Tel Aviv and Ankara.

Turkey and Israel have gone through tense periods over the past two decades as the populist Erdoğan and Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who left office in June 2021, accused each other of violating human rights.

Ironically Turkey-Israel trade increased as relations worsened.

According to official data, bilateral trade between the two countries was recorded at $8.4 billion last year, up from $6.2 billion in 2020.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Turkey in March further accelerated the trade between the two countries. One hundred Turkish firms held more than 1,000 business meetings with over 400 Israeli companies ahead of Herzog’s visit at the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce business summit in Tel Aviv. Israel is reopening its Ministry of Economy and Industry’s economic office in Istanbul and will assist 1,540 Israeli companies currently exporting to the Turkish market. Turkey’s main goal is to carry Israeli natural gas to Europe since Israel discovered large reserves of natural gas off its Mediterranean coast in 2009 and Europe is reducing its dependence on Russian fuel.

Erdoğan’s AKP government and Israel are enjoying an increasing trade volume, but these close economic and now close political relations never help the Palestinians. But Qatar and Egypt played a more active role in a ceasefire between the Palestinians and Israel. The chairman of the Qatar Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, told Al-Monitor in September 2020 that his country’s diplomacy “helped to deescalate the conflict and spare innocent Palestinian civilians living in Gaza further humanitarian disasters.”

Erdoğan hosts Hamas leaders and provides them with Turkish passports, but the Egyptians have made efforts to stop Israel’s violence in Gaza and the West Bank. A Hamas official told Al-Monitor that Qatar, Egypt and the UN worked on the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas announced in August 2020. And Egypt mediated a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that came into effect on May 21 2021, ending 11 days of fighting.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which normalized ties with Israel in 2020, was also willing to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, since Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan said last year that “the UAE is ready to work with all parties to maintain the ceasefire and explore new paths to reduce escalation and achieve peace.” The UAE also provides humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people through relevant United Nations agencies.

Besides Middle Eastern countries, the EU and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) are providing humanitarian and development assistance to around 6 million registered Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. The EU announced last week $267 million in funding for UNRWA for the 2021–2024 period.

Turkey’s opposition parties accuse Erdoğan of being two-faced in his Israel policies since Erdoğan’s older son, Burak, has never halted his business dealings with Israel despite all the tensions. And Turkish Islamists are very critical of Erdoğan’s AKP since Israeli citizens can enter Turkey without a visa, but Palestinians need a visa to visit Turkey, and Turkish citizens face many challenges to get a visa for Israel.

Tension remains high in the region as Israel killed 49 Palestinians, including 17 children, in a recent three-day offensive in the Gaza Strip. Egypt, the UAE and Jordan — not Erdoğan, who recently hosted Herzog, and not Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who visited Israel on May 25 — began intensive mediation efforts to stop the violence in Gaza in the first week of August.

It seems that Erdoğan will continue to exploit the Palestinians’ suffering as he tries to gain popularity in the Islamic world with his anti-Israel rhetoric, and the Turkish-Israel rapprochement will not benefit the Palestinians.

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