The news that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considering suspending ties with the UAE over its deal to recognize Israel reinforces the battle lines of the Middle East. The announcement nevertheless comes as little surprise. The Palestinian cause seems destined to be eternally used by others as an instrument in their own battles. In this case, it has become the pawn in the battle between competing and assertive visions of the region.
First, let’s consider the defense for President Erdogan’s position. The Turkish Foreign Ministry has suggested that history will not forget or forgive the UAE’s action. Inasmuch as the UAE has sold out the Palestinian cause for its own interests, the Turks have a point.
Israel-UAE Deal: Arab States Are Tired of Waiting on Palestine
On the face of it, the Palestinians get little from the deal. All the UAE has wrung out of Israel is a promise to suspend its attempt to annex large swathes of the West Bank where illegal settlements exist. This merely prevents an inroad rather than offering any real concessions.
But then the UAE was negotiating for its own ends, not for the Palestinians. In the regional battle against Qatar and Turkey — and more broadly against political Islam — the UAE merely wished to cement its position as the West’s true friend and ally in the region. It should also be noted that the UAE has done so as something of a shock troop to the real power of the counterrevolutionary alliance in the region, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom that is the custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina has been silent on the deal with Israel.
Turkey Stays on Script
The Turkish response is one calculated entirely within the framework of the regional battle with the UAE-Saudi-Egypt axis. In this context, Turkey has a clear opportunity to position itself as a vital ally of the Palestinian cause: not as extremist as Iran, yet not as silent as Saudi Arabia. This is vital to Turkey, since the UAE has been a big investor in the West Bank and Gaza in recent years. At the same time, the UAE has become Turkey’s key adversary in the region. The new deal gives Ankara an opportunity to fully usurp the UAE as the Palestinians’ most important ally.
Turkey, being a Sunni Muslim power, also has a natural lead on Iran in the Palestinian cause. Although Iran has supported Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon in their conflicts with Israel, as a Shia power it has always been one step removed from the Palestinian cause.
Which brings us to Israel, the other key element in the equation. It is easy to see Erdogan’s latest move as simply an Islamist attack on Israel propelled by a revisionist instinct that wants to harm Israel in whatever way possible. But unlike Iran, Turkey’s relationship with Israel is complex. Turkey and Israel have long and deep ties that are rooted in their shared experience as non-Arab and democratic states in a region where both characteristics are unusual. Diplomatic links are strong, if strained, under the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Turkey’s position has little to do with harming Israel and everything to do with Ankara’s position in respect to the Arab world. President Erdogan wishes to be a key regional player in the Middle East and in the Sunni Muslim world. Turkey is also the major Islamist force in the region.
The UAE-Israel deal and the Turkish response have occurred in a context in which Ankara is at loggerheads with both countries in the eastern Mediterranean. The UAE is supporting renegade General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, while Turkey supports the more Islamist Government of National Accord in Tripoli. At the same time, Israel and the UAE’s ally Egypt have signed a maritime agreement with Greece and Cyprus aimed at freezing Turkey out of gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. In these circumstances, both can expect to be snubbed. Their decision to shift the diplomatic landscape of the Palestinian issue was equally expected to be used by Turkey as an opportunity to gain leverage in this conflict.
The Power of Belief
Alongside all the geopolitical considerations, there is one that is rather more obvious. It is that President Erdogan might actually believe in the cause he is backing. The current political climate is often assumed to be one of purely Machiavellian intrigue and design, but Erdogan has built a career as a conviction politician. Behind the soundbites and the posturing, much about the long reign of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, first as prime minister and then president leading the AKP, has been about long-term historical issues and the restitution of perceived past wrongs.
This is as much an internal Turkish legacy as an external one, but given the nature of Turkey as the chief successor state of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire, many of the issues close to the president’s heart have a wider regional implication. This can be seen in antagonisms everywhere from Greece and Cyprus to the Gulf states and North Africa.
The centrality of Islamic faith is as important to President Erdogan as it was to the rulers of the Ottoman Empire throughout much of its history. It informs his ties to countries across the Islamic world. It is evidenced in Turkish engagement in Somalia, Sudan and Libya, where Turkey is supporting the more Islamist faction in the civil war.
All this means that Palestine, the central Islamic cause in the Middle East since the First World War, is of central and very personal importance to him. At this moment of conflict with other powerful nations of the Sunni Muslim world, when Palestine’s chief allies appear to be Shia powers such as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, President Erdogan and his party may feel it beholden on Turkey to seize the mantle as the predominant Sunni ally of the cause.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.