Why Egypt Won't Let Turkey Be Gaza's Hero

Turkey will need Egypt's cooperation to play a role in the rehabilitation of Gaza, but al-Sissi's distaste for Erdogan's ties with Hamas is getting in the way.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh (left) and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2012.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

After Recep Tayyip Erdogan spat out a salvo of slurs at Israel during Operation Protective Edge, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the then-Turkish prime minister “is continuing in the way of Goebbels.” But this seems to have been Israel's opening shot. Lieberman, who was forced to respond to Erdogan just as Israel began its military operation in the Gaza Strip, decided to restrain himself because Israel was concerned that any hateful reaction to the Turkish premier could help him get elected president in the August 10 vote. It’s hard to estimate how much Erdogan’s policy vis-a-vis Israel helped him achieve such a sweeping victory (52 percent), but in light of the complete failure of Turkey’s Middle East policy, it probably didn't carry any weight.

Israel fired the next shot on Monday, when the Shin Bet security service said it had arrested 93 Hamas operatives and ascribed to them, among other activities, a plot to overthrow the Palestinian Authority. The Shin Bet pointed to Saleh Arouri as heading this network and plotting, driving and financing its activities. Arouri is defined as the founder of the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades in the West Bank. He was exiled to Syria in 2010 and moved to Turkey after Hamas fell out with Syria.

Arouri, who sat in Israeli prisons for many years and was among the mediators in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, enjoys the hospitality of Turkey, where he meets with Hamas men. According to Turkish officials, he is the middleman between Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal and the Erdogan administration, and he organizes meetings for the Arab states that arrive in Turkey to increase their donations.

Israel has known about Arouri’s operations in Turkey for years, but given diplomatic sensitivity and a desire to lower the tensions between the states, it has avoided insisting on his extradition or going on a public campaign against his residence in Istanbul. Israel has raised the matter a number of times with the U.S. But the Americans, who just this week confirmed the sale of 145 medium-range missiles to the Turks, seem not to want to get into trouble with the Erdogan administration, which in other circumstances — if, for example, it were Iran — would be included in a list of governments that support terrorism.

Will the Shin Bet’s news or Arouri’s ties with the Turkish government serve to give Israel diplomatic ammunition to urge the Americans to pressure Turkey, a NATO member? Western diplomatic sources told Haaretz that the broadly publicized arrest of the Hamas network is evidence that a political intention stands behind the revelation. But would exposing the Turkey-Hamas ties in the context of terrorism change the relations between Europe and the U.S. with Turkey? The sources said that given the U.S.'s involvement in the war in Iraq and its reliance on Turkey for its campaign in Syria, Arouri is unlikely to suddenly turn into an international focus of interest.

Arouri, however, is only one link in the chain of relations between Turkey and Hamas, which strengthened in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in 2008. If until that operation Turkey acted with great caution on every contact it had with the organization, and even went to the trouble of advising Israel of this contact, Cast Lead began the break.

On the eve of the operation, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Erdogan at his house as Turkey tried to mediate between Israel and Syria. Olmert was received as a respected and welcome guest, and the two held indirect talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad. At the time, Israeli forces were assembled on the Gaza border and they were clearly about to attack.

According to a senior source, during their meeting Erdogan asked Olmert if he would give him the opportunity to try to persuade Hamas to stop its attacks on Israel. Olmert told Erdogan that he would have to think about it and would let him know soon after. According to the source, Erdogan tried calling Olmert upon his return to Israel, but the Israeli prime minister didn’t answer his calls, and it became evident that he was uninterested in letting his Turkish counterpart influence his decision-making. Operation Cast Lead got underway and Erdogan flew off the handle.

Months later, during the Davos economic forum in 2009, Erdogan couldn’t restrain himself any longer, and in a joint televised interview with then-President Shimon Peres, he ripped off his microphone and stormed out of the hall.

The Turks estimate that from then on Erdogan consolidated his decision to espouse Hamas and hit Israel where it hurts. But it was not only Olmert who angered Erdogan. Turkey was excluded from the entire diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians. And even though it felt that it could be a mediator, it was pushed aside by both Israel and Egypt, led at the time by Hosni Mubarak, whose relationship with Erdogan was like two icicles.

Erdogan tried to adopt the policy developed by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which relied on the principle “zero problems with the neighbors.” Erdogan grew very close to Syria's Assad and nurtured Turkey’s relations with Iran. But those ties did not support him in the Palestinian arena. As such, he adopted a strategy similar to that of Iran, the essence of which is that if you cannot influence via diplomacy, try to do so via organizations.

One year after Cast Lead and the performance at Davos came the flotilla affair. While the flotilla may not have received direct funding from Turkey, it enjoyed direct sponsorship under the principle of removing the Gaza blockade, which Turkey espoused even before the flotilla. The flotilla's unfortunate result, in which nine Turksih citizens were killed, is that it turned Erdogan into the knight of Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology three years later — or three years too late — and Israel’s willingness to pay compensation were not enough to remove Turkey’s diplomatic demand to lift the blockade.

When Hamas cut ties with Assad as a result of his massacre of the Syrian people, and when Hamas's leaders left Syria in February 2012, the organization got trapped in enormous financial difficulties. The disconnection from Syria also resulted in a disconnection from Iran, and from its deep money box, which had provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas. That year, the Muslim Brotherhood reigned in Egypt, but the good ties between the Brotherhood and its ideological descendant were not enough to substitute the necessary financing, since Egypt’s till was empty.

Qatar, which also employs the strategy of influencing via organizations, volunteered to help and donated exorbitant amounts to finance civilian infratstructure in Gaza and strengthen the Hamas government. In October 2012, the emir of Qatar, Hamad Al Thani, made a royal visit to Gaza to announce a donation of more than $400 million, and among those who welcomed him there was Saleh Arouri, who arrived from Turkey especially for the welcoming ceremony.

Turkey, on the other hand, sufficed with a somewhat smaller sum. Turkey granted Hamas a total of about $300 million for the years 2012 and 2013, a relatively small sum compared with the demands of Hamas, whose annual budget stands at about $1 billion. At the end of 2013, the Turkish aid suddenly shrunk, and Khaled Meshal, together with the head of Hamas’s finances, traveled to meet Erdogan and ask him to increase the aid and transfer funds that were promised but not delivered. After this meeting, Meshal received the rest of the funds as well as promises of additional aid.

Turkey is now willing to contribute to the financing required to rehabilitate Gaza, as a continuation of the funding it provided to build a hospital and other civilian projects. Its problem is that the rehabilitation of Gaza, when it begins, will be overseen by the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is no great admirer of Erdogan, even though he received Erdogan's blessing when he was elected president, as he did from Meshal and Egypt’s ousted president, Mohammed Morsi.

The feeling is mutual, although Abbas is subtler than the current president of Egypt, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, in his relations with Erdogan. But both leaders see in the Turkish president-elect not only a representative of the Islamist movement with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (Erdogan does not belong to the movement) but also someone whose sponsorship of Hamas interferes with coordinated management of Arab diplomacy.

Turkey is effectively ostracized in Egypt; its status in Cairo is similar to that of Qatar. Abbas, who is clinging to al-Sissi, cannot — and does not want to — adopt a policy different from that of the Egyptians, one that would put him on track to clash with Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

The result is that even during the Israel-Hamas cease-fire negotiations, Turkey was left on the bench. If Israel and Hamas eventually come to some sort of terms and a long-term agreement is signed between Israel and the Palestinian government to rehabilitate Gaza, Turkey will again be able to play a role in the Palestinian arena by financing and carrying out civilian-infrastructure projects. But it won't have exclusivity. Turkey will need Egypt's cooperation and it will compete with Europe and the Arab states, which will carry great influence in the rehabilitation process. That's a process that Europe and the Arab states won't want to leave in Erdogan's hands.

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