Erdogan Searches for Diplomatic Response to Israeli Invasion of Gaza

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 1

Israel’s ongoing offensive against Gaza has generated waves of anger among the Turkish public and Turkish political elite. Paralleling mounting street demonstrations throughout Turkey are international attempts by the country’s leaders to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The attacks came amid Turkey’s growing involvement in the Middle East as a significant power seeking to exert influence through nonmilitary means, including economic and trade relations, cultural exchanges, and its new-found role as a regional peace broker. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has successfully involved Turkey in attempts to resolve the region’s protracted problems, most importantly Israel’s entangled relations with its Arab neighbors.

When Israel launched air strikes on December 27, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the high number of civilian deaths and emphasized Turkey’s concern that the developments might undermine regional stability (, December 27). Erdogan criticized the operation and labeled Israeli aggression as an act against Turkey’s peace initiatives, noting that through this action Israel had shut the door on diplomacy. He said that any diplomatic contact with Israel was meaningless at that point and called on the United Nations to intervene to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. He also cancelled his plan to call Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss Israel-Syria negotiations, because Israeli aggression was also “an act of disrespect toward Turkey” (Radikal, December 27).

Erdogan’s disillusionment with Israel can be better understood given Olmert’s visit to Ankara a few days earlier, during which they discussed the status of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Olmert asked Erdogan to revitalize the Israeli-Syria talks (, December 23). Erdogan was preparing to play a more assertive role as a peace-broker in 2009, but Israel’s unrestricted use of force and apparent “insincerity” toward Turkey might have shattered his optimism about finding a comprehensive solution to Middle Eastern conflicts through dialogue.

In response to Israel’s uncompromising position, the Erdogan government embarked on a diplomatic offensive to mobilize the international community. Since the outbreak of the crisis, Erdogan has spoken to world leaders such as the UN Secretary-General and European politicians (Anadolu Ajansi, January 4). He went on a “Middle East tour” to consult with regional leaders and explore a common position against Israel. On the first step of his shuttle-diplomacy, he met with the leaders of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as Palestinian politicians. The second step of his tour took him to Saudi Arabia. Following his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Erdogan announced Turkey’s proposal for a two-stage plan to calm tension in Gaza. The first stage would be a ceasefire supervised by international peacekeepers, including Turkish forces. The second stage would seek to find a common ground between rival Palestinian groups in order to achieve a sustainable peace in the region (, January 2; Sabah, January 3).

In the midst of these initiatives, Turkey appears to be seeking ways to bridge the divisions among Arab countries as well. While some Arab countries tend to feel that Hamas has the main responsibility for the collapse of talks with Fatah and are seeking to isolate it because of its alleged connections to Iran, Turkey is arguing against its isolation (Referans, December 30). At a time when Hamas is also coming under international criticism for sparking Israeli aggression, Erdogan defended the organization by saying that “agitation does not come from Hamas; rather, Israel has created fertile ground for this agitation.” Referring to a June 2008 deal brokered by Egypt, he maintained that “Hamas complied with the six-month long ceasefire. Yet, Israel did not lift the embargo. The people of Gaza are living in an open prison.” Erdogan went on to add that “Turkey could sponsor Hamas’s conditions for a ceasefire at the UN Security Council [UNSC], because Hamas’s trust in the Palestinian authority and Egypt has been shaken” but it still had full confidence in Turkey (Yeni Safak, January 3;, January 4).

Here, Erdogan had in mind Turkey’s new role as a non-permanent member of the UNSC, which it assumed this month. However, the United States’ threat to veto any resolution to halt Israeli attacks, as reflected in the January 3 consultation meeting of the SC, will not make it easy for the Erdogan government to use this avenue for supporting Palestinian interests. It is also important to note that Erdogan has repeatedly emphasized Turkey’s willingness to work in tandem with Egypt as a defender of the Palestinian cause.

At the same time, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan met with his counterparts. He phoned the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, himself a Turk, and arranged an emergency meeting of the OIC Foreign Ministers (, December 28). The final communiqué of the OIC meeting held on January 3 strongly condemned “the ongoing barbaric Israeli assault on the Palestinian people in Gaza” and proposed a number of measures to mobilize the international community to relieve the suffering of Palestinians and end Israel’s attacks (, January, 3). Similarly, Turkey also urged the Arab League’s foreign ministers to work toward a ceasefire and facilitate reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

The start of Israel’s ground offensive despite these efforts raises questions about the future of Turkish-Israeli relations. In response to a question, Erdogan had earlier said, “Inter-governmental relations cannot afford emotions. Yet, injustice cannot be permitted either. If there is oppression, we cannot support it. We seek to solve it through talks” (Zaman, January 2). Given Israel’s lack of interest in “talks,” on the one hand, and Turkey’s pro-Hamas position and exclusion of Israel from its diplomatic initiatives, on the other, it will be interesting to see how Erdogan will advocate Palestinian rights in international forums and whether Turkish-Israeli cooperation can survive the storm.