The last few weeks have been marked by mounting political turbulence between Turkey and Palestine as the Palestinian representative to the Arab League (AL) condemned Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria at an AL meeting on October 12.
The AL meeting is not the only evidence of deteriorating Turkish-Palestinian relations. According to Turkish media reports, members of the Palestinian government failed to participate in an international conference in Ankara titled “All Together for Al-Quds” on October 22, where prominent Turkish politicians delivered emotional speeches on Jerusalem.
In a further sign of disengagement from Turkey, Palestine also set up high-level business councils and new bilateral structures with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in October.
Another rebuke took place when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu attended the Non-Aligned Movement’s Ministerial Committee on Palestine held in Baku on October 24. Although he called on the international community to recognize Palestine and achieve lasting peace, he did not meet with his Palestinian counterpart, Dr. Riad Al-Malki, on the sidelines of the meeting. Instead he had talks with the Iranian, Malaysian and Venezuelan foreign ministers in Baku.
What is more, the 3rd Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Member States Conference on Mediation took place in Istanbul without high-level participation from the OIC general secretariat or Palestine. “Some 60 percent of current conflicts are taking place in the OIC area, and this puts a heavy responsibility on our shoulders,” Çavuşoğlu stressed in his speech at the event. But he failed to mention the political process in Palestine, while describing Turkey as the “chairman” of OIC mediation efforts.
At the AL ministerial meeting the Arab states urged the United Nations Security Council to stop Turkey’s “military invasion” in Syria and to have it “immediately” withdraw its forces. The AL statement condemned Turkey’s “attempts” to impose “demographic changes” in Syria. Though Qatar and Somalia announced their reservations at the meeting, the remaining delegates, including Ambassador Diab Al-Louh, the Palestinian permanent representative to the AL, supported the statement.
This major blow to Turkey was downplayed by the Turkish foreign minister, who claimed the Palestinian foreign minister did not attend the AL meeting and interpreted this as a sign of support for the Turkish position.
Palestine’s political stance on Turkey’s military operation created an uproar in the pro-government Turkish media. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s media elites accused Palestine of betraying Turkey by involvement in the Arab reaction against its military operation.
Despite the reaction from the media, Erdoğan and his party members refrained from criticizing Palestinian authorities to avoid further deterioration of bilateral ties. To this end, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay and Deputy Chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Numan Kurtulmuş did not hesitate to attend the third international conference on Jerusalem of trade unions and professional organizations. But Palestine was not represented by cabinet members at the conference as Turkey was.
In his speech Oktay praised Turkey’s support for Palestine and called on Muslims and the international community to embrace the Palestinian cause and protect Jerusalem. “The liberation of Muslims begins in Jerusalem. … The international community should recognize the state of Palestine in order to achieve lasting peace. We will continue to defend the Palestinian cause on every platform,” he said.
Turkey’s military offensive in Syria is aimed at protecting the unity and future of the Islamic world, ruling AKP Deputy Chairman Kurtulmuş claimed, adding that the Arab on the street is with Turkey despite the AL and Arab leaders’ opposition to Turkey’s incursion.
In fact, Turkey’s souring relationship with Palestine is the result of increasing support for Jerusalem from the Saudi-Egyptian bloc. In October, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was hosted in Riyadh by King Salman, while Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh paid a historic visit to Cairo.
The Palestinian government started to develop its economic disengagement plan from Israel after the latter started withholding some of the tax revenues it collected for Palestine on February 17, 2019. These visits came as part of the Palestinian government’s efforts to activate economic relations with Arab countries and economically disengage from Israel. It is obvious that the increasing financial support from some Arab countries for Jerusalem generated a negative impact on Turkey-Palestine affairs.
Following the AL meeting on Syria, President Abbas met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on October 16-17 to bolster joint cooperation and to coordinate political stances. The visit resulted in agreement on forming a joint economic committee and a Saudi-Palestinian business council, as the Palestinian Authority faces a financing gap that could top $1.8 billion.
Since February, relations between the Palestinians and the Saudis have been shaky due to their disagreement over US President Trump’s “deal of the century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The gradual thaw in Palestine-Saudi relations is remarkable amid the rising tensions between the kingdom and Hamas. Dozens of Hamas members have been arrested in Saudi Arabia since April, and Palestine has not intervened for their release. The latest diplomatic maneuvers by Palestinian leadership with regards to Turkey has also contributed to the restoration of its ties with Riyadh.
Prior to President Abbas’ official program in Riyadh, Prime Minister Shtayyeh visited Cairo on October 7-10, heading the largest ministerial delegation in the history of the relationship between the two countries. According to reports, Shtayyeh asked Egypt to allow his government to establish customs collection offices on the Egyptian side of the border for products entering Gaza through the Rafah border crossing.
Speaking at a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart, Mostafa Madbouly, in Cairo, Shtayyeh underlined Egypt’s efforts to support the Palestinian economy and achieve national reconciliation. He outlined his government’s strategy of gradual disengagement from Israel, self-reliance through strengthening national products and opening Arab markets to Palestinian products.
While the Arab states were strengthening their ties with Palestine, Ankara was only able to host some former religious figures in order to continue its influence in the region. Following the AL meeting on Syria, Sheikh Ikrime Sabri, the former grand mufti of Jerusalem from 1994 to 2006, was hosted by the the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), the long arm of Erdoğan’s government for promoting religious and nationalist propaganda overseas.
Sabri currently chairs the Riyadh Al-Aqsa Schools, funded by TİKA, in East Jerusalem.