Turkey in partial revision of Middle East policies

Turkey in partial revision of Middle East policies

Speaking to a group reporters travelling with him to Saudi Arabia on the last day of 2015, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan surprised many with his statements on Israel. “Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region. And we too must accept that we need Israel. This is a reality in the region,” he said, responding to a question on ongoing efforts for reconciliation in Turkish-Israeli relations. 

This statement was not important only because it saw the highest level confirmation of Turkey’s will to normalize relations with Israel, but also because it revealed that Turkey would adjust – if only partly - its foreign policy in line with the realities of the Middle East. 

As recognized by Erdoğan, one of the most important realities of the region is that strong, honest and efficient cooperation between Turkey and Israel would render both nations safer, particularly at a time when the Middle East is passing through its worst days. Both countries are concerned about the growing threat posed by extremist jihadists and other terrorist groups in the region as a byproduct of the Syrian unrest.

The normalization process will be accomplished when the two countries agree on two remaining items of the agreement: Compensation and Turkish access to Gaza. The two parties are still talking about how Turkish humanitarian assistance to Gaza can be transferred in an unrestricted way but in line with Israel’s security needs. 

But when it is about Gaza, one should realize the significance of Egypt as the main gate of the enclave opening to the world. Under President Sisi, Israel and Egypt have developed better relations based on a mutual understanding on their priorities and needs, particularly on Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. They also have more or less similar positions on Hamas. 

It is in that sense that Turkish-Israeli normalization is being closely followed by the Egyptian authorities, who are concerned that greater Turkish presence in the Gaza Strip would weaken Cairo’s influence on the enclave.

There is no need to reiterate that things would be a lot easier for Turkey in its demand to have more access to Gaza if it enjoyed better ties with Egypt. That’s why any partial adjustment of Turkey’s foreign policy should also include Egypt.

Erdoğan revealed Saudi Arabia’s intention to mediate between Turkey and Egypt in his aforementioned trip, and one should expect that this will constitute an important item in Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s official talks with Saudi leaders this weekend.  

It should also be noted that Turkey and United Arab Emirates have also recently been mending their ties, which were strained due to the UAE’s strong reaction against Turkey’s harsh campaign against Egyptian President Sisi. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently said he was planning to visit the UAE very soon, in a landmark visit perhaps marking a new era between the two states. This would mean Turkey is able to reconcile with Saudi Arabia’s most important ally in the Gulf region.

The fact that Turkey will host the heads of state and the governments’ summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in mid-April means it has to be fast in accomplishing this new adjustment process. 

Along with Saudi Arabia, the United States has also long been exerting efforts for Turkey to acknowledge the current realities of the region and thus mend its ties with Egypt and Israel. Perhaps in the future there will be times when Turkey will not need to be urged by other countries to align its policies with the realities of the region and the world.