Recent news of the UAE normalising relations with Israel is hardly surprising; snug relations between the two has long been known. The global reaction to the ‘peace deal’ was also as anticipated: many Western nations expressed delight, and Egypt’s coup regime sent congratulatory messages, as did representatives of Oman and Bahrain. Naturally, much of the Muslim world, especially the Palestinians themselves, condemned it.
However, it was the condemnation from the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that perhaps brought about the strongest reaction from some Muslims in the West, at least on social media. After accusing the UAE of displaying “hypocritical behaviour”, President Erdoğan said:
“The move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached … we may also take a step in the direction of suspending diplomatic ties with the Abu Dhabi leadership or pulling back our ambassador.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry had earlier issued a similarly strongly-worded statement:
“The UAE, which is pursuing secret ambitions over a US plan that is stillborn, null and void, ignores the willpower of Palestine. [The UAE] has no authority to negotiate with Israel on behalf of Palestine without consent from its people and administration regarding vital matters.”
“Neither history nor the collective conscience of the region will ever forget and forgive the hypocritical behaviour of the UAE, which is trying to depict the deal as a sacrifice for Palestine, when in reality it is a betrayal to the Palestinian cause for its own narrow interests.”
This reaction, along with the threat to suspend diplomatic ties with the UAE, was especially notable since, as many were ready to point out, Turkey already has diplomatic ties with Israel. How can Turkey condemn the UAE for normalising its relationship with Israel when Turkey has held the very same relations since as far back as 1949? Are we really comparing like for like?
Turkey’s Relationship with Israel
Turkey has been a significant Muslim-majority land for many centuries. It only shifted towards secularism following World War One and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. In the years that followed under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey became a nation that sought to free itself at many levels from being a member of the wider international Muslim body (the Ummah). Turkey instead strived to become an insular and secular republic, and was quick to recognise Israeli statehood by forming diplomatic relations with the Zionist entity just one year after the latter’s creation.
The relationship between the two began thriving in the 1990s. Hasan Koni, Professor of International Relations at Ankara University, told The New York Times in 1999:
“Even people who have been suspicious of Israel must now see that after the United States, Israel has become the country we can trust most. That is now clearer than ever.”
The political landscape in Turkey would change dramatically with the ascension of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002 after a landslide election victory. Whilst a strong relationship with Israel continued in the following years, the government’s drive away from militarised secularism and restoration of functional institutions and public services naturally refocused Turks away from their own challenges to those of the external Muslim world.
The cracks in the relationship between the two nations emerged when Israel brutally attacked Gaza in 2008/09. In front of world leaders, and pointing directly at the then-Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Erdoğan slammed the brutality shown by Israel  whilst the Turkish masses demonstrated against Israel in protest.
Just a year later, the infamous Gaza flotilla incident would bring the relationship to its knees. Israeli forces illegally attacked a Turkish aid convoy bound for Gaza, killing a number of civilians, including Turkish citizens. This was described as “state terrorism” by the Turkish leadership. The incident severely downgraded diplomatic representation, and it would take until 2016 for a reconciliation to be reached, which included agreements on how Turkey would receive compensation and send aid to Gaza in the future.
Whilst trade and military cooperation would continue and remain significant, the relationship would never quite be the same, with both quick to slam the other whenever their interests collided. Further Israeli military aggression and Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would only exacerbate the drift. There has been no ambassador in either capital since Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador from Ankara following Israeli attacks on unarmed protestors at the Gaza border in May 2018.
Today, Turkey remains one of the most vocal supporters of Palestine, furthered by humanitarian aid and a real political obstruction to further Israeli assaults whilst it continues to trade and maintain strained relations with the Israelis.
Why Does Turkey Not Break Ties with Israel?
Many fairly hold that no supporter of Palestine can truly justify maintaining normalised relations with the Zionist entity given their state-sponsored terrorist activities, illegal occupation, and further annexation plans. In a simplistic world, one would expect Turkey to sever ties with Israel once and for all – put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. However, the reality is much more complex than an immediate cessation of a diplomatic or economic relationship. By virtue of Turkey being a democracy with a hugely diverse parliament, and many multi-directional institutions that operate independently of government with interests with Israel, such relations are by no means comparable to the absolutist UAE, which politically sways with the decision of a handful of its leaders. This contrast is discussed further below.
It further cannot be doubted that Turkey remains a problem for Israel at all levels. The attack on the Gaza flotilla is only one example. Whilst worldwide condemnation comes and goes, Israel would need to grovel over the course of six years to ‘restore’ ties with Turkey, when many other nations in the region would have ‘taken it on the chin’. The relationship in its current form is without doubt affording the Turkish government a degree of leverage over Israel.
Secondly, and more importantly, one cannot disregard Turkey’s political direction. This is a critical consideration, as a judgement must take into consideration the Turkey’s current ‘absolute’ situation as well as its direction vis-a-vis reform (islāh) against corruption (ifsād). Sentiments in Turkey and within Turkish politics are veering in the direction of Palestine. The normalisation of pro-Palestine sentiment amongst the Turkish masses has even pushed members of the secular public to speak up against Israel’s policies.
In summary, this does not justify or validate such a relationship, but recognises that it is not a simple one. Despite thriving in certain areas, the relationship with Israel has not cost Turkey its reciprocal support from the Palestinians.
A Brief Background to the UAE Deal
On the 14th of August 2020, President Trump announced a historic agreement that saw the UAE normalise relations with Israel, calling for more Muslim nations to follow. Delegations are planning to meet in the weeks ahead to sign lucrative deals involving tourism, investment, technology, and much more.
Cooperation between Israel and various Gulf nations has increased year on year and has mostly been clandestine, particularly since President Trump began harnessing support for his stalled ‘Deal of the Century’. The deal was rejected by the Palestinians and much of the international community, including Turkey, and was dubbed as only serving Israeli interests, legitimising occupation and annexation whilst seeking to buy off the Palestinians.
Earlier this year, President Erdoğan explained:
“I have already stated that this is an occupation plan, not a peace plan.”
“(The ‘Deal of the Century’) prevents [the] Palestinian diaspora from returning to their lands … They claimed for years that they provided so much support (to solve the crisis in the region). However, the support was always for Israel, not Palestine.”
The normalising of ties between Arab nations and Israel is also an important part of the deal. Upon its announcement in February this year, Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE rushed to applaud it and show their support. Thus, it is important to look at the relations between the UAE and Israel through this lens; one that is intended to serve only American and Israeli interests entirely at the expense of the Palestinians. As one PLO Executive Committee leader explained:
“The UAE’s position, in terms of its timing and essence, can only be understood as giving Israel leverage for free. There’s no reasonable justification for it except that it gives more power to the occupation and increases its crimes against the Palestinians.”
The UAE is not seeking to replicate the features of Turkish-Israeli relations. As far as Palestine goes, Turkey and the UAE are as divergent as it gets. The UAE is instead seeking a relationship that lends legitimacy to Israeli aspirations over Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Jordan Valley. The ‘Arab’ and ‘Gulf’ UAE used a relationship that Israel could only have dreamt of to leverage absolutely nothing for Palestine. Even the dressed-up Emirati claim that Israeli annexation would be called off was debunked within hours by Netanyahu, who confirmed it was very much still on the cards.
How do the Relations Contrast?
It is wildly unfair and misinformed to equate Turkey’s relations with Israel and that of the UAE. Firstly, the political direction within Turkish politics is diametrically opposed to that within the UAE. Whilst sentiment in support of Palestine is increasing in Turkey, it is in freefall in much of the Gulf.
Secondly, whilst the absolutist structure of the regime in the UAE and the rest of the Gulf can single-handedly opt to boycott Israel, a representative democracy such as Turkey that needs to deal with an array of diverse institutions and political persuasions does not have the same privilege. The opposite is also true.
Thirdly, Turkey’s inherited relationship with Israel – dating back to 1949 – has often been hanging around the neck of Israel, as the latter’s diplomatic balance with Turkey has forced it to concede many privileges for the Palestinians. Conversely, the UAE needlessly sought out a relationship at a time when Palestine needs more support than ever.
Even if one were to assume that the Turkish leadership makes such statements and condemnations against Israel for show, or to stir up emotions and gain public support among Muslims ‘out of hypocrisy’, why does the Gulf fail to do the same? All Muslims love Masjid al-Aqsa and yearn to see Palestine freed from oppression and injustice. The fact that the UAE and other Gulf regimes dare not speak up for Palestine – even for political show – indicates how far they have drifted away from the cause.
This is not to mention Turkey’s others grounds for condemning the UAE: its alleged participation in the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey; its seeking to devalue the Turkish lira; its involvement in atrocities, land annexation, and partitioning in Yemen; its support for the warlord Haftar in Libya and Assad in Syria; its support for China’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslims, Modi’s oppression in Kashmir, and the coup in Egypt – the list goes on. In each one of the aforementioned, Turkey has taken the diametrically opposite side. As such, there is a level of enmity between the two nations that goes beyond the matter of Israel, and all of this must be taken into account before uninformedly dismissing the relations as ‘the same’.
This article does not intend to convince Turkey’s detractors to change course, nor does it aim to justify Turkey’s weaknesses. Instead, the aim is to show the need for maturity when trying to understand the rapidly changing political landscape of today.
The world is not monochromatic. Carefully balanced decisions will need to be made on who truly represents Muslims around the world, from our enemies and from within. One must recognise that diplomatic relationships are not of a single type or for a single purpose. Matters need to be judged by their substance rather than their name. Only a handful of Muslim states have consulates in Israel, yet there are also many others who legally classify Israel as an ‘enemy’ but are expediting its expansionist interests even more than some nations who openly recognise it.