Turkey’s careful fence-sitting between Israel and Hamas
As the rapprochement process between Turkey and Israel started, several news reports claimed that the Turkish authorities planned to expel dozens of people identified as being associated with the Palestinian Hamas movement. However, a senior Turkish official spoke to the media anonymously this week, insisting that Turkey had not expelled any Hamas member and is not planning to kick any out either.
At this point, it is hard to verify whether Hamas members have been expelled or not. However, the Hamas issue has always been a major source of tension between Ankara and Tel Aviv and it is clear that Turkey will attempt to sit on the fence on this issue while considering both its domestic and foreign stakes ahead of next year’s critical elections.
Turkey and Israel have been engaged in efforts to break the ice in relations since last year, including with secret negotiations and intelligence cooperation. In March, President Isaac Herzog became the first Israeli leader to visit Turkey since 2008, with that trip bringing bilateral relations to a possible turning point after more than a decade of rivalry between the former allies. However, one of the main points of contention between Ankara and Tel Aviv has always been the Israeli treatment of Palestinians and Israel’s disapproval of the presence of Hamas members in Turkey.
Turkey’s relations with Hamas date back many years. After Hamas’ election victory in January 2006, a delegation headed by Khaled Meshal visited Ankara unexpectedly for a meeting with Turkish officials. The fact Turkey had become the first country to meet officially with Hamas, which aimed to gain legitimacy, raised eyebrows in Tel Aviv. Although Ankara’s aim was to open a backchannel between Hamas and Israel, this attempt was regarded by the latter as a mistake that could deeply hurt bilateral relations.
The two countries are now aiming to close the contentious files and seek new areas for cooperation
In 2007, Hamas asked for Turkey’s mediation in its dispute with rival Fatah, while Ankara in 2009 offered to mediate between the two Palestinian groups to create a consensus for a long-lasting ceasefire in Gaza. The rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, which differ on how to share power in Palestinian politics, deepened when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. However, Turkey’s efforts to bring Hamas closer to its ranks annoyed both Egypt and Israel. At the same time, it positioned Turkey as an alternative to Iranian influence on the group.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, even drew an analogy between Hamas and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is known as the PKK, and asked what the Turkish reaction would be if Israeli officials invited PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to Israel for talks. The Turkish side described Gissin’s comparison as “unnecessary and wrong,” underlining that, in their talks, they urged Hamas to abandon violence and embrace a conciliatory stance toward Israel.
Relations started to systematically deteriorate after Israel’s December 2008 assault on Gaza, which led to harsh criticism from the Turkish leadership and media. A few months later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos. And bilateral relations, which had already taken a severe blow, reached rock-bottom in May 2010 as a result of Israel’s deadly military operation on the Mavi Marmara ship as it attempted to deliver aid to blockaded Gaza. This incident led Turkey to downgrade its diplomatic ties with Israel and suspend all military agreements.
While the deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations over the past decade was due to several factors, perhaps what exemplified this deterioration most was the Hamas issue. Now, after years of frosty relations, Turkey and Israel are aiming to close the contentious files and seek new areas for cooperation. How they will proceed with the Hamas issue is a matter of curiosity.
Turkish officials have maintained over the years that Hamas leaders settled in Turkey largely due to Israel’s Gilad Shalit exchange deal and insisted that Ankara provides the Palestinian group with no material support. Turkey says it has a long-standing policy of refusing entry to members of Hamas’ military wing and frequently warns the group not to send them. Amid the Turkish-Israeli thaw, reports have emerged that Malaysia might become a potential base for Hamas because the group would have nowhere else to go in the Middle East if Turkey expelled it or severely curtailed its activities and presence in the country.
Hamas is widely seen as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Turkey’s recent efforts to normalize ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia have rattled the Brotherhood-affiliated television channels and leaders. Egyptian opposition TV channel Mekameleen announced last month it had shut its offices and studios in Turkey and would be broadcasting from other locations.
The most challenging thing for Turkey will be to improve relations with Israel without creating the appearance of making any concessions on the Palestinian issue. It is likely that Turkey and Israel will try to put their relations on to more solid ground so that they will not be affected by political ups and downs or by the Hamas or Muslim Brotherhood issues.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz