Commentary

Turkey and Egypt Vie for Influence

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas appears to be holding for now. And nobody stands to gain more from it than the residents in the Gaza Strip, who have come out en masse to celebrate an agreement signed last night between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Under the ceasefire agreement, the two parties will engage in negotiations that foresee the opening of Gaza border crossings as well as the cessation of targeted killings on the part of Israel in exchange for a halt on rocket attacks into Israel. Another big winner of last night’s agreement is the new Egyptian government, now seen as reasserting some of its influence. Not everyone is excited about it, not least Turkey, another regional power aspiring to exert more influence in the region.

Not wanted to be seen as second to any other government (as well as due to genuine concerns), Turkish government officials have been quite clear about their disapproval of Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, both in the West Bank as well as Gaza. According to a report by the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lashed out at Israel, claiming that the country is committing ethnic cleansing against Palestinians with air offensives against Gaza that have left more than 100 people, mostly civilians, dead. Erdogan, addressing his deputies in a parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, said Israel is undermining peace and international law in the region and committing ethnic cleansing. ‘Israel is occupying Palestinian lands step by step,’ Erdogan said, adding that Israel is terrorizing the Middle East.”

But in a meeting with his own party members, the Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu challenged the Turkish Prime Minister to follow his words with deeds: “’If Erdogan wants to do something in favor of Gaza, he can do it very simply. If he was actually against Israel, then he would suspend the activities of the Kürecik radar base,’ Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu said. ‘Why was the radar station in Kürecik [in the eastern province of Malatya] established? It’s because of Israel’s security’....Kiliçdaroglu also denounced Israel for its Gaza assault, calling the situation a humanitarian tragedy.”

There are signs that Turkey has been slowly uncoupling itself from joint military projects as well as minimizing its reliance on Israeli military hardware. The Anatolia News Agency recently reported that Turkey had succeeded in developing sufficient technological knowhow and capability to break its unmanned plane program free from Israel: “Turkey’s political tensions with Israel, formerly a major defense partner, will not affect the development of the country’s domestic unmanned aerial vehicle, ANKA, as the country aims to produce a previously imported part, an official has said. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), the state-run developer of ANKA, has already initiated a study to replace an Israeli-made computer case used in the initial configuration of the plane.”

There are indications that Turkish government officials were not thrilled to be playing second fiddle to Egypt in the recent ceasefire negotiations. Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin rightly points out that this most recent clash between Israel and Gaza has given Egypt the right opportunity to take a leadership role: “It is a fact that Turkey has a role to play in the efforts to stop Israel from launching a wider-scale military operation into Gaza that could lead to more loss of life and worse tragedies....Despite the reality that Turkish officials have made it clear when you ask them that they are assisting Egypt in all efforts regarding the Middle East peace process, the Turkish government is not extremely pleased that its secondary role was made public....Egypt’s role in the region is back following the Tahrir Revolution, and its government is stronger than before after its government took power in free elections.”

Others more optimistically see a long term relationship between Egypt and Turkey built on a shared past and common vision for the region: “The Turkey-Egypt axis represents the most important aspect of the general trend wherein they try to alter and put a stop to Israel’s attacks on Gaza. In the Middle East, the harmony emerging between Turkey and Egypt will also inflame Israel’s paranoia....Israel declared war not on Gaza but on the new order, with Turkey among its numbers, in the Middle East. However, the growing closeness between Egypt and Turkey is based on a deep mental, historical repertoire and societal support. It does not appear to be easily abandoned.”

In Israel, many continue to remain wary of the new Egyptian government, given the state of the relationship with Turkey, which they could have relied on the past. But now feeling encircled, some, like Jerusalem Post’s Liron Libman, wonder “How can trust between people, so important to a future of peace and stability, exist in this hostile atmosphere of alienation? … Egypt’s actions over the past few days, as the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian factions in Gaza escalates, do not seem to support an optimistic view of Egypt’s role....However, the real question is how two neighboring states should handle their differences, after having peaceful relations for more than three decades? One would hope by open and constructive communications at the highest political level. This does not seem to be happening.”

These suspicions are not helped by reports that prior to the ceasefire agreement Palestinian officials had requested the Turkish and Egyptian governments to send troops to monitor any such eventual agreement. Thankfully for Israel, none of the Turkish diplomats interviewed by Today’s Zaman’s Sinem Cengiz were keen on the idea: “Palestinian Ambassador to Turkey Nabil Maarouf told Today's Zaman…that in order to maintain a possible cease-fire in Gaza…Turkey and Egypt should send in troops immediately....However, diplomats believe that it would not be in Turkey’s interest to take action in Gaza by sending in its troops....Özdem Sanberk, a former diplomat and foreign policy commentator…told Today’s Zaman that it would not be appropriate for Turkey to take action on its own by sending its troops to the Gaza Strip.”

But as the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star points out in an editorial, much of the inability to present a Palestinian united front comes from the political games that regional governments play to further their geostrategic interests. If the Palestinians are to have any success in founding their own independent state, Arab and Muslim countries like Egypt and Turkey should stop pitting one Palestinian faction against the other: “Bitter infighting has always been the Achilles heel of the Palestinian struggle, and Arab regimes have long propped up these power struggles, supporting one faction over another when they felt it was to their benefit....If the Arab leaders who have been financing these factions are really sincere about confronting Israel they should without any exception encourage and promote this trend in every possible manner, recognizing that this is the way to create a stronger Palestinian side with some hope of facing the Jewish state.”


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