Turkey has made its first move on the regional chessboard after the recent peace deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. On August 22, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received in Istanbul a high-level delegation from Hamas, including its leader Ismail Haniyeh and deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri.
Also present at the meeting held behind closed doors at Istanbul’s Vahdettin Palace were the head of Turkey’s intelligence service, Hakan Fidan, and two key aides of Erdogan –communications director Fahrettin Altun and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
The symbolism of the event is profound. The US State Department has designated Haniyeh and Arouri as terrorists and has placed a $5 million bounty on their heads. And, of course, Turkey’s links with Hamas has been a sore point with Israel, and it has strained the traditionally close relations between the two countries to near breaking point.
Meanwhile, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Turkey’s ruling Islamist party has ideological affinity but which the Emirati regime regards as an existential enemy.
To be sure, Erdogan has made a calculated move after reading the tealeaves that one of the objectives behind the US-sponsored deal between the UAE and Israel is the creation of a new regional order even as American retrenchment from the Middle East may have already begun.
Erdogan estimates that the main target of the UAE-Israel deal is Turkey. He saw the UAE as an active participant in the failed coup attempt in 2016 aimed at overthrowing his government. He is also acutely conscious that the US, Israel and the UAE are aligned with separatist Kurdish groups in Turkey.
Turkey and the UAE are promoting opposite sides in the Libyan conflict and recently, the UAE has begun cozying up to Greece against the backdrop of rising tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The US State Department lashed out at Erdogan for meeting with Hamas leaders. But within hours, Ankara hit back. In a furious rejoinder, the Turkish Foreign Ministry rebuked Washington for questioning the legitimacy of Hamas, “which has come to power in Gaza through democratic elections and which constitutes an important reality of the region.”
Alluding to US policies, the Turkish statement went on to say, “Moreover, a country which openly supports the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], that features on their list of terrorist organizations and hosts the ringleader of the FETO [group led by Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen], has no right whatsoever to say anything to third countries on this subject.”
Lamenting that the US “has isolated itself from the realities of our region,” the Turkish statement urged Washington to change course and “sincerely work towards the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of international law, justice and equity by pursuing balanced policies, instead of using its power and influence in the region to serve the interests of Israel rather exclusively.”
To be sure, Erdogan has a game plan in defiantly flaunting his relationship with Hamas at this juncture.
In the Turkish reckoning, the UAE-Israel agreement, with US backing, aims to create new facts on the ground in the Middle East, in the form of unimpeded telecommunications, travel and recognition between Israel and its richest neighbors in the Persian Gulf region, but completely bypassing the Palestinian problem and blithely assuming that it is a matter of time before the Palestinian leadership waves the white flag of surrender.
On the contrary, Turkey shares the assessment of many independent regional observers (and perceptive Western analysts) that the Palestinians, who have held out for seven decades, are in no mood to surrender, abandoning their political rights. Indeed, the Palestinian popular resistance is showing no signs of fatigue.
Palestinian leaders have used very strong language to condemn the UAE regime. The wave of anger is fueled by a deep sense that they have been betrayed by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
This anger is prompting Fatah and Hamas, who have been bitter rivals since the 2007 civil war in Gaza, to close ranks and discuss the need for joint political action. Mahmoud Abbas, who was unwilling to accept any partners in the governance of Palestine, is now open to working with Hamas. Last week, Jibril Rajoub, general secretary of Fatah, shared a platform with Arouri, signaling that the rapprochement is gaining momentum.
If the Emirati calculation was to promote exiled Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan (who lives in Abu Dhabi) as the next Palestinian president in a near future with the backing of Arab states and Israel, that project has crash-landed. Dahlan can no longer exploit the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas. Effigies of Dahlan and bin Zayed were burned side by side in Ramallah last week.
Turkey senses a potential breakthrough in regional politics insofar as the Arab population at large shares the anger and resentment of the Palestinian people at the betrayal by bin Zayed. According to the Arab Opinion Index conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, if 84% of Arab opinion had opposed any diplomatic recognition of Israel in 2011, that has since increased to 87% by 2018.
In this turbulent regional milieu, Erdogan hopes to bring about a fusion between the Arab world’s sympathy and support for the demands of the Palestinians for sovereignty and their own search for democracy and liberation from their autocratic rulers. This has been his dream project all along – creation of a New Middle East that gets rid of the medieval oligarchies and replaces them with representative rule based on democratic principles and empowerment of the people.
In the downstream of the Emirati ruler’s deal with Israel, Erdogan strides like a Colossus on the Arab street, and his meeting with the leadership of Hamas in Istanbul proclaims a common struggle against the despots and oligarchs who suppress democracy and have exercised cruel tyranny over their people across the region. In Erdogan’s calculus, bin Zayed’s contempt for Arab democracy and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trampling of Palestinian rights are two sides of the same coin.
Erdogan visualizes that the UAE-Israel agreement is built on sand and is bound to crumble under the weight of the latent contradictions that are bound to surge in the wake of the expected decline in the United States’ regional influence and prestige and amid the birth pangs of the new post-oil economy in the regional states.
Has Israel bitten more than it could chew? David Hearst, editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye, wrote last week, “Whereas before, Israeli leaders could pretend to be bystanders to the turmoil of dictatorship in the Arab world, this [accord with the UAE] now ties the Jewish state to maintaining the autocracy and repression around it.
“They cannot pretend to be the victims of a ‘tough neighborhood.’ They are its main pillar. This accord is virtual reality. It will be blown away by a new popular revolt not just in Palestine but across the Arab world. This revolt may already have started.”
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.