Back to the Middle East

Back to the Middle East

The second visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Turkey within a month, and his third trip to the Middle East since he took the office in February 2013, radiates important messages to Turkey and the region. Although U.S. President Barack Obama had announced his intention to focus on the Asia-Pacific region in his second term, and although the tension in that area has been rising due to North Korean nuclear tests and disputes between China and Japan over the East China Sea, it seems that the U.S. administration also feels a strong need to look back to the Middle East. This is evident in Kerry’s successive visits to the region at short intervals.

This urgency in U.S thinking about the Middle East might also be behind its recent meditation between Turkey and Israel, its main allies in the region. As Kerry noted during his visit to Turkey, the normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations “is important for stability in the Middle East and critical to the peace process.” Perhaps the U.S. is getting ready to dive into another search to solve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute and Turkey’s support is needed - or at least deemed desirable - to revive the stalled peace process.

We do not know whether this is the intention of the U.S., or whether it will be able to bring the conflicting sides back to the table, but it is quite clear that the U.S. wishes to see Turkey’s support in this endeavor. Kerry highlighted the importance of Turkey in the process before he visited Israel and the West Bank, focusing mainly on Turkey’s connections with Fatah and Hamas. The power struggle between Fatah and Hamas has not only harmed the chances of a Palestinian state negotiating with one voice, but also prevented the possibility of a healthy and functional negotiation process from existing. The U.S. wants Turkey to persuade Hamas not to hamper the process, and in fact support it.

Although there were exaggerated reports in Turkish press that Kerry had asked his Turkish counterparts to mediate between Israeli and Palestinian groups, the immediate Israeli reaction has left no room for debate. Leaving aside the absurdity of the idea of why the U.S. should share the limelight with a third party in negotiations, while trying to start the process itself as the main actor, there are still many divergences and there is deep distrust between Turkey and Israel, despite the U.S.-brokered Israeli apology. It is hard to imagine Turkey becoming an important actor in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations when normalization between Turkey and Israel is just getting started. The mutually hostile stances of the current governments in both countries are still there, as well as various Turkish conditions. In that, the U.S. role as facilitator becomes important in keeping the two countries on track.

The recent suggestion in the Turkish press about Turkey’s possible involvement in the Middle East peace process and the Israeli reaction should be a reminder to the Turkish decision makers that keeping open dialogue channels with all the conflicting parties is necessary to play a role and increase Turkey’s influence in the region.

On the other hand, recent American initiatives to normalize Turkish-Israeli relations, revive the peace process, help the Syrian opposition, etc., would also revive the U.S.’s position and influence in the Middle East. Since Obama took power in Washington, the U.S. had reversed George W. Bush’s overzealous and interventionist policies in the region and refrained from direct involvements. But now, Kerry’s several visits are signaling a renewed engagement on behalf of the U.S. There are opportunities for Turkey to exploit in the current circumstances, if it focuses on long-term cooperation rather short-term controversies.