The negative approach by Hamas to US-led efforts aimed at reviving the Middle East peace process — and the group’s categorical rejection of the Arab League’s “land swap” proposal for peace — has placed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a difficult situation. As a committed Islamist, Erdogan’s natural impulse is to sympathize with Hamas and its leader, Khaled Meshaal, who is also part of the international Muslim Brotherhood network that Turkish political Islamists feel an affinity toward.
Erdogan has not hidden his personal admiration for Meshaal either. This was apparent when Meshaal was one of the few dignitaries invited by Erdogan as a guest of honor to his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) convention in Ankara in September 2012. Meshaal received a standing ovation when he arrived at the convention hall, with delegates later vying for a handshake and a picture with the Hamas leader.
The annoyance these images caused was not only felt in Washington or in Israel, however. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA) was also reported to be less than happy over the manner in which Turkey was providing crucial political support to rival Hamas. Back in Gaza, however, the accolade their leader received in the capital city of a regional power whose star is on the rise, as well as the political support from a key international figure like Erdogan, was met with great satisfaction.
Erdogan is nevertheless finding that circumstance is forcing him to overcome purely Islamist sympathies and work more and more through the PA, and President Mahmoud Abbas which, it seems, is not all that pleasing to Hamas. But it is becoming increasingly clear to officials in Ankara that, if Turkey wants to have a constructive role in the Middle East, this is the course to be pursued, given Abbas’ international recognition and Meshaal’s lack of it.
The dilemma for Ankara is that undermining Abbas’ authority by appearing to be overtly favoring and emboldening his rivals would also be out of tune with the manner in which Ankara lobbied for the PA to gain “observer state” status at the UN. Ankara hastily appointed an ambassador to the PA after that status was gained in November 2012, and Turkey’s consul general in Jerusalem, Sakir Torunlar, submitted his credentials to President Abbas in April, in a unique ceremony in which he became the first ambassador to the PA.
The PA today is also against Erdogan’s proposed visit to Gaza at the end of May, arguing that this would be divisive for Palestinians at a time when efforts are under way to reconcile Hamas and Fatah. Hamas, however, is continuing to insist that the visit by the Turkish prime minister will take place, regardless of what Washington and the Abbas camp may say, and this is increasing the pressure on Erdogan as he tries his balancing act between the two Palestinian factions.
Although the Gaza visit has turned into a matter of political honor for Erdogan, particularly after US Secretary of State John Kerry came out openly in Istanbul recently opposing this, the PA’s opposition to the visit could force Ankara to rethink the matter, especially after Abbas’ recent visit to Istanbul on April 20, where he also held talks with Erdogan.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, for his part, has been pushing the line that the visit itself is not what is important compared to the need for Palestinian reconciliation. Reading between the lines of Davutoglu’s remarks, some diplomats see an attempt by Ankara to turn Erdogan's visit into a diplomatic success by engineering a situation whereby Turkey is seen to be contributing to Palestinian reconciliation, and not division, through this.
Preparing the necessary diplomatic infrastructure for this, however, appears a long shot at this stage, given the short time left for Erdogan’s proposed visit, and also the fact that the rift between Hamas and the PA may be growing because of the former’s strong opposition to US-led efforts to revive the peace talks with Israel. This brings us to another dilemma for Ankara.
A visit by Erdogan to Gaza at a delicate moment in terms of US-led peace efforts could leave Turkey appearing to be a spoiler by providing the naysaying Hamas with moral encouragement. The categorical rejection by Hamas of the recent Qatari-brokered Arab League proposal has merely compounded Erdogan’s dilemma. The League is now saying Arab countries favor a peace deal based on Israel’s 1967 borders, and would agree to agreed land swaps, a fact that Israel has welcomed.
Erdogan’s natural inclination would be to support Hamas fully in this, but the “realpolitik” is forcing him to avoid a stance that would not only anger the PA, but also go against an organization Ankara cannot afford to alienate at a time when the Middle East is in turmoil. With all of this in the background, some signs of dissatisfaction with Ankara are beginning to filter in from Hamas quarters, and especially from those that are looking at the US-brokered reconciliation between Turkey and Israel with some disappointment.
Writing for Al-Monitor's Palestinian Pulse on April 9, Adnan Abu Amer pointed out that the Turkish-Israeli and Turkish-Hamas relationships are “inversely proportional” and suggested that when Ankara distanced itself from Israel, the relationship between Turkey and Hamas drew closer.
“Hamas’ concerns about the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation seem to be on the rise, in tandem with the limitations of alliance choices in the region. This is especially true following the rupture of Hamas’ relationship with Syria due to its support for the revolution, the stagnation in the movement’s relationship with Iran, and the harrowing crisis in Egypt,” Abu Amer wrote.
He went on to indicate that although Hamas believes Erdogan is genuinely hostile to Israel, it understands that interests are driving Ankara’s reconciliation with Israel. Diplomatic sources say Hamas is also unhappy about reports suggesting Turkey will be using its special relationship to pressurize the group into moderation against Israel, including recognition for Israel’s right to exist.
Given this atmosphere, Turkey’s chances of playing some kind of major mediation role between Hamas and Fatah may be receding, if indeed it existed at all. Talking to Turkish daily Milliyet (April 12), Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said if Turkey wanted to play a role between Hamas and Fatah, it had to go through Egypt for this.
“We value the support Turkey is giving to the Palestinian people. But we are not for making the equation with Fatah, in terms of reconciliation, more complicated. As I indicated, Egypt is controlling the process currently,” Abu Zuhri added, without elaborating on why Turkey’s involvement would be “complicating.”
But if some role for Ankara cannot be found, it is Erdogan’s visit to Gaza that has the potential to not only complicate Hamas-Fatah reconciliation but also the peace process. Especially when signals from the Hamas side indicate that it will try and use Erdogan’s visit to political advantage at a time when it is undermining US-led efforts at reviving the peace talks, and is rejecting Arab League proposals.
There are also those in Ankara who argue that it is ultimately Hamas that stands to lose if it weakens its ties with Turkey. Without Turkey’s help, Hamas’ getting some international recognition, as well as its chance of being dropped from the list of terrorist organizations by the West is diminished, they say.
There is, therefore, some hope in official circles in Ankara that this fact alone will force Hamas to accept circumstantial facts, and relax its hard-line position in order to get into the mainstream of the Middle East peace process. Otherwise, the argument goes, they will remain an obstructive radical fringe element, which has failed to achieve anything concrete for Palestinians with its policies to date.
That, however, might be no more than wishful thinking. Meanwhile, as the Turkish saying goes, the Erdogan government could very well end up “neither pleasing Jesus nor Moses” in the end as it tries to walk a tightrope between two estranged Palestinian groups.
Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign-policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.