16.10.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Is Turkey rushing to play the role of mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Turkey in the Arab-Israeli conflict

The ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East clearly has its roots in the history of the formation both of the state of Israel and of Palestine, or rather by the problems caused by the geography of the territories provided by the UN for the foundation of Israel.

Throughout its 75-year history, successive governments of the Jewish state have resorted to force in order to extend their country’s borders. In pursuance of this policy, Tel Aviv has received support from the global Jewish diaspora and key Western countries, especially the main “Anglo-Saxon” nations, namely the United States and Great Britain. It was through the conquest and occupation of Arab territories, whether for economic reasons (eg. the control of the River Jordan, a major source of water) or security reasons (the seizure of the Golan Heights), that Israel began to impose its will on Palestine and its Arab neighbors in the Middle East.

Despite its strategic alliance with the United States and the other NATO states, Israel has never has not become a member of alliance, the North Atlantic Alliance, but remains a non-NATO ally of the West. Why is it that Israel has never joined NATO? After all, the Jewish state’s military potential is largely due to technology provided by NATO and the West. Not to mention the fact that the Israel Defense Forces are several times larger than the combined armies of all the Easter European countries that joined NATO following the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact.

On the one hand, Israel’s non-NATO status leaves Tel Aviv free to continue its policy of occupying new territory in the Middle East and maintain its course as NATO’s squadron leader in this strategically important region at the crossroads of key global trade routes and a geopolitical hotspot where the tensions between major world powers remain strong.

On the other hand, if NATO were to accept Israel as a member, then it would be forced, Paragraph 5 of the alliance’s charter, to take part in the periodic regional conflicts involving its new member. That could result in clashes between NATO and other world powers who support the Arab nations. Thus, Israel’s membership of NATO could even trigger another world war, and it is impossible to tell what consequences that might have for the West itself.

Israel today includes the following occupied Arab territories: the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Under the law on the Golan Heights, adopted on December 14, 1981, Israel incorporated this territory into its Northern District. Tel-Aviv, however, contests the Palestinian description of these territories as “occupied”, preferring the term “disputed territories”. While in 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip, it continues to blockade the territory and follow a policy of ethnic cleansing. In a speech to the General Assembly of the UN on September 24, 2021, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, described Israel’s current policy as one of “apartheid”.

Throughout the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel and its allies in the West have engaged in diplomatic efforts to sow division in the Arab Middle East and the wider Muslim world. Tel Aviv has achieved considerable success in this policy, including in Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Turkey and now in Azerbaijan. However, Israel’s relations with the leading, and richest Arab state, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, remain problematic.

Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia got worse when China started intervening in Middle Eastern politics, triggering a reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Israel, as an economically developed state, is a promising partner for key Middle Eastern countries (including Turkey and the Gulf Arab states) that wish to upgrade their technological base.

As is common knowledge, the US has a particular interest in establishing an ambitious international trade route from India through Israel to Europe. Washington sees the fulfilment of this scheme as an opportunity to further its key policies of containing China and disrupting Iran’s and Saudi-Arabia’s growing links with Beijing. However, one obstacle to the “Indian transit route” through the Gulf Arab states and then Israel is the relationship between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Until recently, the US was refusing to rule out the possibility of an important regional security agreement being concluded between Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, the events of October 7, 2023, when Hamas launched an attack on Southern Israel, had a dramatic effect on the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, shifting it from rapprochement and a potential alliance to hostility.

Turkey, which, right from Israel’s foundation was one of the first countries in the Islamic world to recognize it as a state, has nevertheless had ups and downs in its relations with Tel Aviv. Naturally, the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO, together with its high level of economic and military dependence on the United States, has also had an impact on its relations with Israel. The two countries have cooperated with considerable success on military, scientific and economic projects (especially in the fields of energy, technology and trade).

The situation changed somewhat when Recep Erdoğan came to power at the head of a pro-Islamist government with ambitions to make Turkey the leader of the Sunni Moslem world and revive the country’s imperial role. In line with these goals, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began to show more support for Palestine and condemn Israel’s occupation policies, leading to an increase in anti-Israeli rhetoric in Turkey. Relations between Turkey and Israel reached their lowest point in 2008, when the Israeli Navy shot at the Turkish-owned ship MV Mavi Marmara, part of a peacekeeping mission which was attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip. As a result of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead nine Turkish citizens were killed. As a result of this deterioration in relations, a Turkish diplomat was expelled from Tel Aviv and the Israeli ambassador was expelled from Ankara. In response to Turkey’s policies, Israel, in turn, began to move closer to Greece and Cyprus in the 2010s.

However, Israel has been stepping up its military and technical partnership with Turkey’s main ally in the post-Soviet space, Azerbaijan. In particular, Tel Aviv made a significant contribution to the modernization of Azerbaijan’s armed forces, which contributed to Azerbaijan’s military success in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in the Fall of 2020, and in 2023.

Israel justifies its support for Azerbaijan, strategically located in the South Caucasus and on the shore of the Caspian Sea, on the grounds of economic expediency (it purchases oil and gas from Baku) and security (Azerbaijan is a neighbor of Iran). The good relations between Israel and Azerbaijan have been one of the main catalysts for the restoration of Tel Aviv’s partnership with Ankara. As part of this rapprochement, on December 9, 2022 Israeli President Isaac Herzog paid his first visit to Ankara since 2008, and met with President Recep Erdoğan. That visit marked the renewal of good relations between Israel and Turkey.

In relation to the escalation of Israel’s military conflict with Hamas, Turkey finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, President Erdoğan has been a strong advocate for a cessation of hostilities between the parties, and has offered to serve as an intermediary between them. On the other hand, Erdoğan also insists that the only way to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East is through the recognition of Palestine in accordance with the UN decisions, with its capital in East Jerusalem and its borders as they were in 1967.

Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, has already entered into ceasefire talks with the US and the two sides in the conflict. According to Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the United States Department of State, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken supports Ankara’s initiative. As a result, Erdoğan is now able to act as a key mediator in this conflict, given that Turkey, as the newspaper Hürriyet notes, is still in a position to conduct a dialog with both sides.  Its position is almost the same as its role in relation to Russia and Ukraine (although, it is true, Turkish diplomacy has, as yet, had no success).

However, Turkey’s peace initiative may be seriously impeded if the Israel Defense Forces carry out “unprecedented retaliation” against Hamas, as Hürriyet warns. In other words, if the Israel Defense Forces were to launch a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, resulting in total ethnic cleansing, the confrontation between the Arab-Israeli conflict could escalate, and the conflict could drag on indefinitely. In such a case there would be little that Turkey could do to prevent Lebanon’s Hezbollah from getting involved, turning it into an international conflict. Not to mention other major powers in the region, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

That is why Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has criticized the US decision to send the aircraft carrier Gerald Ford to Israeli coastal waters, and the position of the collective West to unconditionally support Israel and even to deny even humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. That is why Erdoğan cites Israel’s lack of respect for the many UN decisions and resolutions on the Palestinian issue as one of the reasons that have led to this conflict. And that is also why anti-Israeli rhetoric has increased in Turkey, among both political commentators and the general public.

Thus, former ambassador Onur Öymen, in an interview with the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, has pointed out that most of the UN resolutions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have been either delayed or never implemented. In his view, the US simply turns a blind eye to Israel’s actions, while immediately responding to Palestine’s misdeeds.

Turkey, of course, is quite right when it criticizes the US and Europe for their double standards in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, Erdoğan said nothing about double standards in relation to the total blockade and the repeated aggression by his ally Azerbaijan against the Armenians population in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia itself. In Syrian, too, Erdoğan has welcomed his country’s military operation against the Kurds and enthusiastically announced the elimination of over 160 PKK militants in one week. As we can see, it is not just the US, the EU and the UK that are guilty of having double standards, but also Turkey itself. Such is the way of the world, where might, and not law, dictates what is right.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan is focusing on realpolitik, offering to mediate between the conflicting parties in Israel to secure the exchange of prisoners, or, more accurately, hostages, and, hopefully, the supply of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Clearly, we should not expect any further results from Turkey’s mediation attempts in the near future.

Turkey claims that a just peace in the Middle East can only be achieved if the independence of Palestine, with its borders as they were in 1967 borders and its capital in East Jerusalem, is officially recognized. But such a message would not go down well in Israel. That is why, Irit Lillian, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, has said that it is still “too early to talk about any possible mediation between Israel and Hamas”.

That suggests that Israel is not yet ready to end its campaign, and that it plans to completely destroy Hamas and force it out of the Gaza Strip. As Irit Lillian sees it, only after Israel has successfully completed its military operation and ordered a ceasefire will it be time to talk about peace and who to appoint as an intermediary. In other words, Israel wants Hamas to surrender, and is not interested in the “just peace” that Erdoğan proposes.

Thus, Turkey’s offer to serve as the main mediator at this stage is not welcomed by Israel itself, because Ankara’s approach my turn out to be too “fair”. It is possible that Tel Aviv may make its position clearer during or following Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel on October 11-12.

Erdoğan has also made his position clear in his latest comments, calling Israel’s actions “mass murder”. Specifically, he said that: “The disproportionate use of force against the Gaza Strip, devoid of any moral grounds, may put Israel in a place globally that it does not want to be in. This conflict, being fought with disgraceful tactics, is not war, but mass murder”. And Turkey’s Deputy Minister of Education, warned Benjamin Netanyahu: “One day, they will target you too. You will die.”

Meanwhile, the death toll from Israel’s air strikes on the Gaza Strip had already reached 1,055 by the morning of October 11. If Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran were to enter the conflict, then Israel could potentially face a long war on five fronts. And that could happen if Iran were to get involved. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has already stated that it is ready to begin a joint operation with Hezbollah against Israel. Perhaps this is why, as the Middle East center Le Beck International notes, Israel has so far refused to directly accuse Iran, wishing to avoid the undesirable scenario of a war against several opponents. It is therefore Iran, which has the leverage to influence the nature of the war, rather than Turkey, that might be best suited to play the role of mediator in pacifying the situation in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the world is looking on as the conflict in the Middle East continues.


Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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