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How Erdoğan is playing the Palestinian card

Translated Sunday 15 July 2018, by Eoin Downey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has established himself as the leader of the arabo-muslim world. On May 14th last year, when sixty Palestinians were killed by Israelis, he was one of the first to vehemently criticise the Israeli Government. Defending the Palestinian cause is both central to his politics and a seductive asset.

“Stop the oppression”, is the slogan behind which thousands of Turks gathered in Istanbul on May 18th of last year. Palestinian and Turkish flags waved en masse above the crowd. This gathering had taken place at the call of Erdoğan, as did the special summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, (a governmental organisation comprising 57 member states which protects and promotes the interests of the Muslim world).

The Turkish President, a passionate defender of the Palestinian cause, had been one of the first to condemn the Israeli Government for the killing of some sixty Palestinians. Since facing Turkish students in London, he declared that “Israel is spreading state terrorism. Israel is a terrorist state”. Three days of national mourning were then immediately declared in Turkey.

This was not an unusual approach from Erdogan, whose acerbic critiques are not uncommon.

On January 6th 2009, during a public debate in Davos on the consequences of the Israeli offensive on Palestine during the Gaza war, Erdoğan displayed outbursts of rage. Then prime minister and speaking to the then Israeli President Shimon Peres, he wrote “you are killing people. I remember the children that are dead on the beach”.

This date marked a turning point where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the defender of the Muslim world.

These particular anti-Israeli diatribes are resonating with the electoral base of the governing and president’s own party AKP, (the Justice and Development Party). They are serving him all the more with regard to the upcoming presidential election, of which he is a candidate.

“The Palestinian cause is not a cause which divides the country” qualifies Sinan Ülgen, a Turkey specialist and president of the think-tank Edam in Istanbul. “On the contrary, support for the Palestinians is unanimous,” continued Ülgen. Opposition parties are also being very critical of the Israelis. Consequently, even if the members of AKP had wanted, their support for the Palestinian cause would not result in their redesigning the political landscape in favour of the party.

“The United States, partners in crime.”

The voice of the Turkish President is finding all of its resonance in the arabo-muslim world. “Marrying the Palestinian cause and positioning Turkey as one of the pillars of the Islamic community, which showcases the plight of the Palestinians on a global scale, is a priority of the government” continued the researcher. And with this strategy, Ankara is not sparing its ally, the United States. “Unfortunately, the United States have become complicit in this crime against humanity” declared the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

As for the Americans? They seem to be turning a deaf ear.

“From the point of view of Washington, there is a slightly involuntary acceptance of the Turkish position”, underlines Sinan Ülgen. “We cannot truly say that this will cause a gap between Ankara and Washington as there is a report which suggests that there are already a number disagreements which are more important than this particular issue.”

It is also necessary to add that Washington does not consider the OCI to be a game-changer able to bring about change in its current form. The differences of opinion are undermining the good relationship between the arabo-muslim countries and are stopping them from reaching an agreement on concrete measures. As proof, at the end of the second special meeting of the OCI, which was presided over by Erdoğan, the 57 members declared that "these acts represent barbaric crimes committed by Israeli forces with the support of the American administration”. They also called for “an international protection for the Palestinian people, including the delivery of an international protection force”.

Categorically, the most severe reactions came from South Africa and Turkey. The two countries recalled their ambassadors. Ankara even asked the Israeli consul general to “temporarily” leave their country.

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