Last week, I attended a 3-day international conference on Palestinian information and communications technology in Istanbul, writes Abdelbari Atwan.
The conference was attended by many political and intellectual figures from occupied Palestine, the Arab world and Europe. Delegates expected the conference to be opened by Ahmed Davutoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, but it was whispered in the corridors of the conference centre on the first morning that the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself, might make a surprise appearance.
In the end, neither Davutoglu or Erdogan attended the session and the Turkish government did not host a dinner or reception for guests as is usual.
The reason I have used this as my introduction is not to suggest that the importance of the conference was in any way diminished by the absence of Turkish government officials, but to investigate the reasons for it. It is certainly not unrelated to Erdogan’s surprise announcement three days ago that Turkey is preparing to “normalize” its relations with Israel four years after the IDF massacre of activists on the Mavi Marmara when the Turkish ship was leading the flotilla to break the Israeli siege of Gaza.
Interviewed by the American TV channel PBS, Erdogan said that Turkish and Israel officials had been working on $20 million compensation deal for Turkish victims of the attack for several weeks. Previously, Erdogan has always said that no agreement with Israel was possible without the siege of Gaza being lifted. Now, however, he has accepted a package which allows for Palestinian aid to be delivered via Turkey. Erdogan thought that normalization and the re-establishment of reciprocal embassies would take place with days or weeks.
Israel’s Army Radio reported that the agreement also includes a commitment by Erdogan to end any legal action against Israel over the Mavi Marmara attack.
Support for Gaza
Personally, I was deeply shocked by this change in Turkey’s position, as I have always valued Ankara’s humanitarian support for the besieged two million citizens of Gaza, who are on the brink of starvation and lack even the most basic supplies. I also approved the fact that it was Turkey who managed to extract from the Israeli Government, for the first time in its history, a clear apology for its unbridled violence against those innocent humanitarian activists that were killed that day.
I had rather naively assumed that Mr Erdogan’s Government rejected normalisation with Israel, despite intense pressure from the US and others, due to solidarity with the Palestinian cause and those trapped in the Gaza Strip, not because of a disagreement over the size of the financial settlement by way of compensation to the families of the victims. It seems I was wrong.
It is undeniable that Mr Erdogan is a pragmatist but it is difficult to see how Turkey can benefit from linking itself to the extremist and racist administration currently running Israel. To do so is to swim against the current tide of history. The Peace Process has collapsed and there is a worldwide, burgeoning BDS movement, holding Israel to account for its apartheid, inhumane treatment of the Palestinians. Why should Erdogan now throw it a lifeline?
The past few days have seen another major surprise in Turkish politics – the announcement, by Erdogan, that Turkey is seeking the extradition from the US of Fetullah Gulen, a former ally of the Prime Minister but now a sworn enemy. Erdogan believes his Hizmet (Service) movement is behind the leaks and social media campaign which placed Erdogan at the heart of a corruption scandal.
A leaked tape recording also exposed the Ankara regime plotting to create a “false flag” pretext for a military intervention in Syria. Erdogan alleges that Gulen was conspiring to depose him. In the event Erdogan’s AKP party claimed victory in recent local elections and Erdogan will need the backing of the Obama administration (and the influential pro-Israeli lobby) to silence this very vocal critic.
A few months ago, Erdogan found himself almost entirely isolated on the international stage after his failed bet on the overthrow of President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria. Now that the focus is on the so-called radical Islamic groups, and how to eliminate them, the question of regime change has slid down the agenda.
This is one of the decisive factors in the new direction of normalization with Israel, just as Turkey has also taken similar steps to restore relations with Iran, Iraq and Russia – countries which support the Syrian regime. Clearly Erdogan longs to return to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy previously maintained by foreign minister Davutoğlu.
Mr Erdogan still holds a place in the hearts of millions of Arabs and Muslims, not to mention the Turks. This is not only because of the economic miracle that occurred in Turkey on his watch, nor the intermarriage between Islam and democracy he engineered, but also because of his famous stance in Davos at the 2009 World Economic Forum.
The reader will recall that, finding himself seated next to Israel’s Shimon Peres, he launched an angry and emotional tirade, telling Peres: “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill… I know very well how you hit and killed children on beaches [in Gaza].” Erdogan walked out in further protest and Arab League secretary-general, Amr Mousa, shook his hand as he did so.
Erdogan was also the only leader of a Muslim country to offer harbour facilities to the flotilla of vessels intent on breaking the Israeli siege of Gaza.
Normalization with Israel, and at such a time, and despite all the excuses and justifications, will certainly affect his position and credibility on the Arab street. It will also provide potent ammunition for his opponents and detractors, who are already well-armed in the wake of his undemocratic decision to ban Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.