By Abdullah Bozkurt
May 11, 2015
Just like Iran has been doing for years, political Islamists -- who finally seized power in the Turkish government significantly eroding constitutional checks and balances, causing the disintegration of the rule of law and curbing parliamentary democracy -- have done a great disservice to the Palestinian people by exploiting their plight for domestic and regional ambitions.
The chief architect of Turkey's policy in the last decade in regards to Palestine has been Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who had served as foreign minister and chief foreign policy advisor to then prime minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Davutoğlu is a committed ideologue and a die-hard Islamist whose utopian perspective orbits around the supremacy of a Muslim Brotherhood-style international network of Islamists. With the blessings of his boss, Davutoğlu has worked hard in the case of Palestine to reclaim ground among radical voices that exploit public sensitivities to long-running injustices and the occupation Palestinian people have been suffering at the hands of Israeli oppression.
In the end, the Turkish role that was long-cherished as a positive one and that came to be appreciated and recognized by Turkey's partners and allies including the transatlantic alliance, was eventually transformed into a negative one under the Davutoğlu-Erdoğan stewardship. Turkish Islamists' latent hostility towards President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Movement and keen interest in exploiting public frustration over the lack of political progress and lingering humiliation of the Palestinian people, has now stirred a backlash against Turkey. Gaza-ruler Hamas is obviously favored by the Islamist leaders as Hamas' political leader Khaled Meshaal frequently attends private dinners at Erdoğan's house, often shows up in Ankara unannounced and has been an enthusiastic campaigner at Davutoğlu's public rallies in Turkey to garner support for the Islamists.
This obscured and short-sighted policy of favoring Hamas by Islamists -- who wanted nothing but to make quick cash on the back of Palestinians -- is threatening Turkey's long-term interests in a way no other government in Turkey has dared to do. Ankara is now seen as interventionist in Arab affairs at the expense of existing regimes, and a bully that loves to show off and boasts a condescending attitude when it comes to resolving the intricate and entrenched problems of Arabs in general and Palestine in particular. Let me give you several examples I have picked up from my confidential sources to explain how Davutoğlu plotted to exploit Palestine for his own ambitions.
One was during the vote on Palestine when the UN General Assembly granted the country non-member observer status on Nov. 29, 2012, with 138 countries voting in favor, 41 countries abstaining and 9 voting against it. The campaign was strongly supported by Turkey and other Muslim and Arab nations. Davutoğlu was not planning to go to New York to personally attend the vote, instead he was supposed to monitor the progress from Turkey and engage in telephone diplomacy. He had a trilateral ministerial meeting with his Iranian and Azerbaijani counterpart scheduled for Nov. 28, 2012 in Turkey's eastern province, Erzurum. The meeting was abruptly cancelled a day before, citing changes to Davutoğlu's itinerary.
What is more, two days later on Dec. 1, 2012, he was to host the fifth meeting of foreign ministers from the Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum in İstanbul. Nabil Elaraby, the secretary-general of the Arab League, was among the dignitaries who confirmed their attendance. Elaraby did not know that Davutoğlu had changed his itinerary, deciding last minute to make a trip to New York to personally appear in support of the Palestinian bid for non-member observer status. By the time Elaraby knew that Davutoğlu had gone to New York, it was too late for him to also attend for the vote. In other words, the Turkish foreign minister ditched all Arab ministers including Elaraby to claim solo credit for the successful bid when it was in fact a concerted effort by many Muslim and non-Muslim nations. When he returned to Turkey on Nov. 30, Davutoğlu organized an impromptu press conference at the airport to tell the tale of Palestine and was later greeted with a crowd of his supporters who were directed to meet him at the airport chanting slogans such as, “Palestine is proud of you.”
The second incident where Davutoğlu saw the opportunity to amplify his role in Palestine was during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict that started with an Israeli offensive on July 8, 2014 in Hamas-ruled Gaza, resulting in over 2,200 deaths. Davutoğlu was to attend the emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) executive committee on Aug. 12, 2014 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In the days leading up to his planned visit, Turkish Foreign Ministry diplomats started to lean heavily on the Israeli embassy in order to quickly obtain permission from Tel Aviv to repatriate wounded Palestinians to Turkey. Israeli embassy officials reported back to headquarters that the pressure was unprecedented, stating that there was something else in the works other than the routine transportation of wounded for medical treatment to Turkey. Moreover, senior diplomats from the Turkish Foreign Ministry called their friends in Tel Aviv to add additional pressure to make that happen, bypassing routine channels. In the end, the Israeli government rushed the request and even some Palestinians who were already undergoing treatment in Israeli hospitals were hastily sent to Turkey.
In fact, what Davutoğlu was planning to do was showcase Turkey's support for Gaza just before his appearance in Jeddah. His wish was granted on Aug. 11, 2014 when a specially equipped air ambulance picked up three women and one child from Israel's Ben Gurion airport and touched down at Esenboğa airport in Ankara in the early morning hours. Davutoğu rushed to the plane with his wife and Health Minister Mehmet Müezzinoğlu at his side and the state-run Anadolu news agency published a photo of him talking to the Palestinian patients while they were still strapped on the stretchers in the plane before disembarking. Davutoğlu got what he wanted hours before departing for Riyad.
Addressing participants at the OIC meeting, overconfident and cheerful Davutoğlu bragged about how Turkey opened an air-corridor to Gaza when in fact it had chartered planes to Israel to pick up screened Palestinians with the permission granted by the Jewish state. He said: “As we speak, our ‘air bridge' has been made operational to ensure delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Our doctors are now on the ground in Gaza and our ambulance aircrafts are now evacuating critically injured Palestinian brothers to hospitals in Turkey. Yesterday, we received the first group of wounded people from Gaza. I personally welcomed them in Ankara. We will continue this operation.”
There are more examples that confirm the view that Davutoğlu and his Islamist brethren pay more attention to symbolism and rhetoric than substance in addressing the Palestinian issue and improving the conditions on the ground there for good. The Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid in an attempt to breach Israel's blockade of Gaza, was sanctioned by the Turkish government as a way to increase the Islamists' stature in the Middle East in 2010. Not only did relations between Turkey and Israel worsen, but Israeli naval commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara killing nine Turkish citizens while the boat was in international waters off Gaza. In fact, it was Davutoğlu who took the flotilla case to the UN over Israel's illegal naval blockade of Gaza and lost the case, providing international legitimacy for the first time to the blockade. The miscalculated move by Davutoğlu resulted in a major defeat for both Turkey and Palestine. After the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey downgraded its ties with the Israeli state by withdrawing its ambassador and expelling the Israeli ambassador from Turkey.
Unfortunately, that was the only option left for the Islamist government who had failed to protect its nine citizens in international waters from Israeli aggression. Instead of coordinating the delivery of aid with Israel, perhaps political Islamists sought martyrdom in open waters to play the victim card in domestic politics and ride on an anti-Israel and even on an anti-Semitic platform on the eve of the 2011 national elections.
The diplomatic price was costly. Ankara has lost the influence and leverage in Israel that might have otherwise come in handy in convincing Israel to restrict its aggression and oppression. It also risked its ties with the US as well as European allies and partners by prolonging the rift with the Jewish state even after US President Barack Obama personally intervened and secured an official apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2013. In the meantime, Turkey has not really tried to contribute to the Egypt-led internal reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah. It showed too much favoritism to Hamas at the expense of Fatah and President Abbas, despite repeated pleas to Erdoğan and Davutoğlu from the Palestinian president himself. As if that is not enough, political Islamists succeeded in alienating the Egyptian leadership when Erdoğan and Davutoğlu continued attacking President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for domestic political gains.
The last example, but by no means the least reflective story, shows how far Islamists are willing to go. Relations between Turkey and Palestine were on the brink of collapse last year when government favoritism of Hamas reached a point where a group of Palestinians from the Gaziantep refugee camp were allowed to board buses and come to Ankara to stage a major rally in front of the Palestinian embassy. Suspecting the involvement of Turkish intelligence, Hamas operatives stationed in Turkey and Islamists in the government of staging the rally, Palestine dispatched a stern warning to the office of the Prime Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), indicating that the ambassador would be withdrawn and a public rebuke issued if such a protest were to take place. Faced with a potentially serious backlash that could have regional and global implications, the Turkish government had to shelve the plans and stopped the protest rally before it happened. The incident was then covered up and never revealed to the public.
As Turkey is heading toward another critical election on June 7, Davutoğlu and Erdoğan have once again picked up the Palestine issue in order to mobilize their core supporters. They will keep exploiting this for domestic political gains and pursuing ideologically influenced policy positions in the Middle East that will benefit neither Turkey nor its Arab partners, including Palestine. If one thing is certain, the crazy Turkish Islamists will continue tapping into Arab disillusionment with the existing regimes, which are already challenged by social, political and economic issues for their ideological and partisan goals.