A few days earlier, Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak reported that Ankara has taken the first step to re-implement the Libyan model with the Palestinians regarding a security cooperation agreement signed by Turkey and the Palestinian Authority (PA) that recently entered into force. The agreement was signed in 2018 between Turkey and the PA, but came into effect last Wednesday due to the Israeli air strikes on Gaza Strip and Turkey’s protest against it.
Turkey’s relations with Palestine go back centuries to the time of the Ottoman Empire. Palestine has always had a spiritual status with the Ottoman sultans due to its religious sites. Turkey also needs this relation again to return to the period of “Neo-Ottomanism.” Since the “Justice and Development Party” (AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey has sought to revive the Ottoman Empire. Due to Turkey’s strategic depth, Ankara intends to expand its leadership role in the Muslim world. Palestine is one of the Muslim-populated areas that has the best chance of supporting Turkey because there is no specific government in it and its inhabitants have been unliked by the Arab world.
Palestine: Turkish’s Arabic Strategy
Turkey’s focus on the Muslim and Arab world began in 1996 under Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and accomplished with the rise of the AKP in Turkey. In the last decade, Turkey has increased its cooperation with Islamic countries, including Palestine. In Palestine, Ankara has bilateral relations with both Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah and the State of Palestine in the West Bank. Turkey hosted a high-level Hamas delegation led by Khaled Mashaal few weeks after Hamas won the 2006 election in Gaza, and in 2004 signed a Free Trade Agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
Palestine is at the heart of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy. In the 2008 Hamas-Israel conflict, relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv deteriorated to the point that Erdogan criticized Shimon Peres at the 2010 Davos International Summit, calling him a murderer. Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated since the Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010. When Trump moved US embassy to Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, Turkey strongly opposed it, holding two urgent Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meetings less than six months, and, along with Yemen, proposed a resolution condemning the US action at the UN General Assembly on Dec. 21, 2018, and the proposal was approved. Ankara then asked the Israeli ambassador to leave Ankara temporarily. Turkey also condemned Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza in May 2021, calling it ‘crimes against humanity.’
Hidden political goals
Relations with Palestine fulfil two functions in Turkish foreign policy. First, they serve as a tool for building Turkey’s image, and in particular that of President Erdogan, who aims to be the spokesman and leader of the Muslim world. He uses Turkey’s role as a patron of Palestinian causes in domestic politics, such as the 2018 election campaign.
The second purpose is that it lets Turkey tout its activity on the Palestinian issue in the regional rivalry to weaken the influence of its strongest competitors: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Turkish actions are reinforced by the apparent decline in the commitment to a Palestinian state by Arab allies as reflected in recent normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel.
Turkey’s relations with Palestine are bilateral, and the PA also needs Turkey. Through Turkey, Mahmoud Abbas is trying to strike a balance with conservative Arab countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE. During the normalization of the UAE-Israel relations, Mahmoud Abbas called Turkish President Erdogan on Aug. 22. A month later, on Sept. 22, representatives of Fatah and Hamas met in Istanbul and announced a new reconciliation deal, and also agreed on holding parliamentary elections. In addition, the PA needs an archive of Ottoman documents of Palestinian land ownership to use in legal claims against Israel.
Cooperation agreement in line with the blue homeland doctrine
Turkey’s security agreement with Palestine is in fact an agreement between the two sides to delimit the maritime Boundaries between Turkey and Palestine. This agreement is similar to the agreement on the delimitation of Turkey’s maritime Boundaries with Libya in November 2019. The Libyan agreement was opposed by Israel, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus, who claimed that the agreement violated their sovereignty.
The hidden goal behind this agreement is to strengthen and implement the “blue homeland” (“Mavi Vatan”) doctrine, which the Turkish Navy intends to implement as an energy and naval strategy. Turkey’s blue homeland strategy is conceived as a means of ending Turkey’s near-complete dependence on foreign energy sources and converting Turkey into a net energy exporter. In 2019, Turkey spent $41.7 billion on imported oil — around 5.5 percent of its GDP. Turkey relies on Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan for a large majority of its energy needs. Through this doctrine, Turkey intends to start energy exploration in the Mediterranean Sea in order to become self-sufficient in energy consumption. The pursuit of this goal has met with strong opposition from Greece and Cyprus.
Currently, Gaza has been under land, sea and air blockade by Israel, while the activities of the Palestinian Naval Police are restricted to 11 kilometers (6.84 miles) from the coast. By signing such an agreement, the Palestinian people would gain control over a 10,200 square kilometer of maritime zone, which would pave the way for them to utilize all the resources at sea. By doing so, not only Palestine will sign an international treaty with an independent state, but it will also encourage other countries to sign such international treaties with Palestine. In addition, Turkey could strengthen its blue homeland doctrine and weaken Israel, which opposes Ankara’s pursuit of the strategy in the Mediterranean.
Mohammad Salami holds a Ph.D. in International Relations. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. His area of expertise is Middle East issues, including the GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.