By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.

Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel after its inception in 1948, and later established full diplomatic relations with it. The strict secular regime supported by the military, maintained this relation for quite a long period.

However, when the Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party headed by Necmettin Erbakan formed a coalition government in 1996, it paved the way for a new vision based on opening up to the east and activating relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, while adopting their issues, primarily the Palestinian issue.

These relations developed further after Justice and Development Party (AKP, an offshoot of the Virtue Party; the new name of the Welfare Party) had seized power in 2002. AKP has tried to pursue an effective and influential regional role, by adopting a foreign policy strategy aimed at having zero problems with its neighbors.

Determinants of the Relation

Turkey’s relation with Hamas witnessed major development, especially following the latter’s victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006. The Islamic background of both sides participated in strengthening this relation. However, the Turkish policy, under AKP, vis-à-vis Hamas (and vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue in general) was governed by a number of determinants, the most important of which are:

1. Responding to the sense of Islamic belonging and historic heritage, and to the popular Turkish will that supports the Palestinian issue. Thus, supporting the Palestinian political and humanitarian issue to attract large segments of Turks who support the Palestinian people against Israel.

2. Taking into account the Party’s conservative and Islamic background, provided that it does not adversely affect its local programs and situation, or its regional and international relations.

3. Approaching the Palestinian issue as the gateway to the Arab region and the Middle East, and to playing a key role in the regional environment surrounding Turkey.

4. Taking into account the official Arab approach to the Palestinian issue, the adoption of the Arab Peace Initiative, and normalization with Israel, in addition to dealing with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as an official leadership of the Palestinian people, and maintaining good relations with it.

5. Taking into consideration gradualism, where the capacity of the ruling party to support any issue and take relevant political stances would be commensurate with the strength and durability of its internal position.

6. Taking into account membership in the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in addition to Turkey’s will to join the EU, thus not exceeding certain lines or policies that might lead to a crisis in its relations with these powers.

7. Taking into account Turkey’s official relations with Israel at the economic, political and military levels, where diminishing any aspect of this relation, disengagement, or taking strong stances against Israel should be gradual to avoid shaking the Party’s domestic position, or causing any confrontation with the West.

8. AKP realizes that it is acting within a secular political regime, and in an environment governed by democracy and the ballot box. It is also aware that it has many enemies in the local arena, while some western powers have different influence tools, through which they can work to foil the Party in elections; by distorting its image or encouraging and supporting its opponents. Accordingly, AKP has to consider the rules of the political game, and the strength of its internal front and popular base.

Consequently, the Turkish government led by AKP will have to take into account a number of determinants in its dealing with Hamas. It will have to support the peace process, while being keen to avoid overt support of the Palestinian resistance or explicit challenge with USA, Israel and other western powers. Yet, it will play in the gray zone, and gradually raise its ceiling within complicated internal, regional and international calculations.

Supporting Hamas and its Legitimacy

Turkey recognized the outcome of the 2006 elections and demanded that the decision of the Palestinian people be respected. It also contacted Hamas despite the Western and Israeli opposition. In March 2006, a Palestinian delegation led by Khalid Mish‘al visited Ankara. In the same month, the Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement which called to give Hamas government a chance to prove itself, and called the international community to pursue a positive stance towards Hamas government.

The Turkish government condemned the blockade imposed on the Hamas-led government. Afterwards, also, and even after the Palestinian division and Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip (GS), Erdoğan government did not hesitate about dealing with the Hamas interim government. In addition, Turkey strongly condemned the Israeli offensive on GS in 2008-2009.

The Israeli attack on 31/5/2010 on the GS-bound Freedom Flotilla—an aid convoy aimed at breaking the blockade—which led to the killing of nine civilian Turks aboard, formed a significant turn in the Turkish-Israeli relations. It also caused angry Turkish reactions, at the popular and official levels, while Turkey rallied on the political and media levels against Israel and in support of its relation with Hamas. Turkey’s reception of Hamas’s expulsed prisoners freed in the fall of 2010 and granting them Turkish passports to facilitate their movement, were indicators of the development of the bilateral relations.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was clear when he declared in mid-December 2011 that Turkey’s policy was to isolate Israel and bring it to its knees. Even after Israel had to apologize to Turkey on 22/3/2013 for the attack against Mavi Marmara, Turkey was still not satisfied as Israel has yet to end its blockade of GS.

On another level, Turkey redefined its regional role in light of the uprisings and changes witnessed in the Arab world since early 2011. The Zero Problems Policy was no more the ruling foreign policy after Turkey had chosen to support these uprisings. This choice influenced its relation with the Syrian regime, and with the Egyptian regime following the military coup against Morsi. Turkey’s choice has also relatively affected its relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The events in Syria enhanced the relations between the Turkish leadership and Hamas, whose main presence abroad was concentrated in Syria. Even more, Turkey became home to some Hamas leaders after they had left Syria, and faced harassment in Egypt.

Hamas’s relation with Turkey witnessed substantial improvement in 2012–2013 where several meetings were held between the two sides. Prime Minister of the GS government, Isma‘il Haniyyah, visited Turkey in early 2012. Of importance was the declaration by FM Davutoğlu who said that Haniyyah’s visit proved that the road to Palestine passes through Turkey, according to Zaman daily on 6/1/2012. Among most significant visits were those of Khalid Mish‘al and Isma‘il Haniyyah heading a Hamas delegate to Turkey to meet Turkey’s PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on 18/6/2013.

Turkish diplomacy was also highly active in support of Hamas and GS against the Israeli aggression on GS from 14 to 21/11/2012. It exercised pressure in international and regional forums, together with Egypt and Qatar, to urge Israel to stop the assault and lift the blockade. As a result, the GS witnessed wide popular and official support that confused Israeli calculations, and caused the Israelis eventually to succumb to the resistance conditions in stopping the attack. Erdoğan arrived to Egypt on 17/11/2012 amid heated clashes, and he met President Morsi, the Emir of Qatar as well as Khalid Mish‘al. The three countries focused their diplomatic efforts regionally and internationally to support the demands of Hamas. Turkish FM Ahmad Davutoğlu also visited GS on 17/11/2012 together with a delegate of Arab foreign ministers during the Israeli offensive.

Regional and International Calculations Under Consideration

As was mentioned in the determinants, Erdoğan’s government has taken into account a number of regional and international conditions. Since not all aspects can be covered here, we pinpoint for example; the Turkish official position calling for a dialogue with Hamas, while including it in the political and diplomatic process to find a solution for the Palestinian issue. The FM Ali Babacan called Hamas on 27/1/2009, a month after the offensive on GS, to pursue a peaceful policy to achieve its goals rather than armed struggle, while President Gül said that Turkey supports the Arab Peace Initiative, which the Turkish leadership believed that it is the best solution for the problems in the region.

The positive Turkish policy continued with the Palestinian government in Ramallah; President Mahmud ‘Abbas visited Turkey on 29/2/2012 and on 4/6/2012, while Turkey carried out several projects in 2012 and 2013 in Jerusalem, Hebron, Gaza, Tulkarm, Nablus, and Tubas among others.

The Turkish government, led by AKP, pursued a pragmatic approach regarding its commercial relations with Israel. These relations were not affected by Turkey’s inclination to develop its relations with the Arab and Muslim world, support the Palestinian issue, develop its relations with Hamas, or even by the political crisis resulting from the Israeli attack on Freedom Flotilla on 31/5/2010. This contradiction between the tension in political relations and the development of trade between the two sides is in part due to the presence of a “network of interests” running its relations afar from political relations. It is also caused by the inability of the AKP-led government to impose its policies and influence on this network within an open secular and economic environment, and by its efforts to comply with the EU standards in establishing commercial relations. The contradiction can also be referred to the fact that some forms of the relations might take into account the need of the Turkish military for Israeli military and technological products.

Accordingly, the volume of trade between the two countries increased in 2011 as compared to 2010 by around 29.3%. The 10% deterioration witnessed in 2012 soon recovered in 2013 when trade exchange increased by around 25% compared to 2012 and by 13% compared to 2011. These figures emphasize the pragmatic inclinations at both sides where Turkey was in 2013 Israel’s eighth commercial partner at world level, with commercial exchange estimated at around $ 5 billion. See table (figures in $ million)

Year Turkey’s exports to Israel Turkey’s Imports from Israel Bilateral trade
 2010  2,080.1  1,359.6  3,439.7
 2011  2,391.1  2,057.3  4,448.4
 2012  2,329.5  1,710.4  4,039
 2013  2,650.4  2,417.9  5,068

Finally, despite the wide Turkish official and popular sympathy with the Palestinian issue, and despite the important victory of Erdoğan and his party in the last municipal elections, it is difficult for Turkey to assume NATO membership and seek EU membership, while at the same time pursuing overt hostility against Israel. Thus, it is not likely for Turkey to embrace complete boycott of Israel, in light of the current conditions. Turkey will continue with its “calculated support” for Palestine and Hamas, its strong demand to lift the siege of GS, while maintaining positive relations with the PA in Ramallah.

The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al on 21/4/2014.