Turkey tries to preserve pro-Palestinian narrative in ‘new era’ with Israel

With eyes on closer ties to Israel, Turkey is trying to sell the Palestinians and its traditional Islamist constituencies the notion that its closer ties to Israel will serve Palestinian interests.

The problem with Turkey’s updated narrative is that contradicts years of radical rhetoric and active support to militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu was in Jerusalem on Wednesday as Turkey and Israel sought to forge closer ties following a breakdown that began during an Israeli military operation in Gaza in 2008.

Erdoğan wants improved relations with Israel to bolster Turkey’s struggling economy, including through joint gas initiatives.

Turkey and Israel have their eyes set on the economic dividends they think they can reap from deeper relations.

"The goal is to form and expand economic and civil cooperation between our countries," Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement alongside Çavusoglu in Jerusalem, "and to leverage our two countries' comparative advantages regionally and globally, even during the pandemic, and even in times of political tension."

Çavusoglu and Lapid on Wednesday agreed to set up a formal process that would allow Israeli carriers to land in Turkey. They also renewed a bilateral economic commission.

Turkey and Israel have been working to mend their long-strained ties, with energy emerging as a key area for potential cooperation.

Çavusoglu and his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid stressed that economic ties had continued to grow despite years of acrimony between the two countries.

“We won’t pretend that our relationship has not seen its ups and downs,” Lapid said.

“Even in times of political tension, economic cooperation between our countries has been constantly on the rise.”

Çavusoglu noted that Turkey was a top ten trading partner for Israel and a major destination for Israeli tourists, voicing hope that deepening ties could yield benefits for Palestinians.

For the Turkish foreign minister, better relations with Israel will allow his country to play a new role as Middle East peace maker, that could help it overcome its disagreements and tense relations with the West.

“We believe that normalisation of our ties will have a positive impact on peaceful resolution of the conflict,” he said.

Çavusoglu claimed that dialogue between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog helped “maintain calm” during a tense period in Jerusalem this year that saw widespread clashes as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish passover holiday overlapped.

“Turkey is ready to take responsibility to continue the efforts towards (Israeli-Palestinian) dialogue,” Çavusoglu said.

In an illustration of the tough balance, his country is trying to maintain, the Turkish foreign minister prayed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in east Jerusalem but also visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, on Wednesday.

Israel and Turkey hailed a “new era” in relations when Herzog met with Erdoğan in Ankara in March.

The Turkish foreign minister made sure his country’s moves accommodated Palestinian needs and concerns.

Ankara's top diplomat announced Tuesday a raft of new agreements to bolster the struggling Palestinian economy, during the first high-level Turkish visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 15 years.

Alongside his Palestinian counterpart Riyad al-Maliki, Çavusoglu pledged to push ahead with plans for the construction of an industrial zone in the Palestinian territories.

"The necessary order has been given; there is no luxury for evading and delaying this project," he said, also setting a $2 billion annual bilateral trade target and pledging more scholarships with Palestinians to study in Turkey.

Çavusoglu did his best to dispel any accusations of betrayal likely to be levelled at his country by its traditional allies among the Palestinians.

“We are leading the normalisation process in coordination with Palestinian authorities,” Çavusoglu said. “Our support for the Palestinian cause is completely independent of the course of our relations with Israel.”

Çavusoglu said that dialogue with Israel would "make an important contribution to the reduction of tensions, as it did during Ramadan, and ... will also contribute to making the Palestinian cause or the voice of the Palestinians to be heard stronger.”

As its forges ahead with its “new era” of advanced normalisation with Israel, Turkey has no illusion about being able to convince the militant Palestinian camp, analysts say.

It is just counting on the sense of realism of its traditional radical allies to help them realise that Ankara’s regional goals have shifted and that this change of course will necessarily affect its positions on the Palestinian-Israeli tracks, starting with deeper normalisation with the Jewish state.

(A version of this article was originally published by The Arab Weekly and is reproduced by permission.)


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