While the representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Quartette (the US, EU, Russia and the UN) were recently hosted in Amman, Jordan, in an effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan met in Ankara with Hamas' Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya, who openly remains committed to Israel's destruction and opposes any peace negotiations with Israel. This does not suggest that Mr. Erdogan's support of Hamas' position is against Israeli-Palestinian peace, but this raises the question as to whether or not Mr. Erdogan is willing to play a constructive role in mitigating the Israel-Hamas discord or whether he will continue to shore up Hamas' obstructionist position to the detriment of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
For Turkey to play a leading and constructive regional role, especially in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it needs first to regain its credibility with Israel. The prudent thing to do for the Turkish Prime Minister is to openly balance his tenacious demands of Israel to modify its position toward Hamas for example, by putting an end to the blockade in Gaza. Similarly, he should equally demand that Hamas' leadership change their posture by accepting Israel's right to exist and renouncing violent resistance as the means by which to achieve a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Erdogan's open-ended support of Hamas, which is mainly rooted in his Islamic affinity to the organization, as many observers suspect of being the case, places the Turkish Prime Minister in a position to persuade Hamas' leadership to permanently abandon violence and accept a two-state solution through peaceful negotiations for its own sake. Indeed, however indispensable Hamas may be to a permanent and secure Israeli-Palestinian peace, as Mr. Erdogan clearly and correctly stated, unless Hamas accepts Israel's reality, Hamas as an organization will eventually be marginalized even by its own followers, the majority of whom want to put an end to the debilitating conflict with Israel that has led nowhere but to more pain and suffering. Repeated polls conducted over the past year have clearly revealed a growing support for the PA while Hamas' popularity shrinks. Hamas recognizes that it needs to change its strategy towards Israel and that Turkey can play an increasingly important role by helping Hamas' leadership take the final leap toward peace negotiations with Israel. Such an effort on Turkey's part is most timely because intense internal deliberations among Hamas' leaders about the pros and cons of ending militant resistance against Israel are taking place, which also remain points of contention within the unity negotiations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
More than any other party, Turkey has earned the trust and confidence of Hamas by being the first to invite to Ankara Hamas' political guru, Khalid Mashaal, more than four years ago. Even though Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU, Turkey has remained a vocal and ardent supporter of the organization ever since. In fact Ankara has done so even at the expense of undermining its relations with Israel, especially since the Mavi Marmara incident on May 31st, 2010 in which nine activists (eight Turks and one American-Turkish citizen) were killed by Israeli soldiers. It is at this particular juncture that Turkey is perfectly positioned to bring Hamas in-line with the Palestinian Authority due to the fact that: a) Hamas' political base in Damascus is in tatters due to the upheaval in Syria and is seeking a new political base outside Gaza; b) Iran, Hamas' main benefactor, is under tremendous international economic and political pressure because of its suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapons program; and c) Egypt's Muslim brotherhood, Hamas' political supporter, is marred in a continuing struggle with the military over power-sharing, but gave up violence long ago to get to this point--an object lesson for Hamas.
Notwithstanding the victories of Islamic political parties in the elections held in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt (and however encouraging that might be to Hamas), none of these parties have gained national popularity because of their pronounced hatred and animosity toward Israel. They have won because they have focused on domestic issues: their ailing economy, health care, education, and human rights. In fact, precisely because they did not resort to scapegoating Israel or the United States for their respective country's ailments, a habitual practice of which the Arab youth is weary. Hamas knows its limitations and will not be carried away by the illusion of the 'Islamic Spring.' Israel will not be wished away and no party to the Israeli-Arab conflict appreciates that better than Hamas, especially following the 2008/2009 Israeli incursions into Gaza. This further explains why Hamas is seriously deliberating abandoning violence against Israel as a means by which to realize Palestinian statehood.
Mr. Erdogan himself might well think that this is the age of Islamism and further enforce the general perception, in and outside of Turkey, that he favors any organization or country with strong Islamic credentials over others, regardless of the conflicting issues involved. However, Mr. Erdogan is realistic enough to understand that Turkey's continued economic developments and future leadership role in the Middle East depends on its ability to reconcile between the conflicting parties in the region. In particular, improved relations with Israel are one of the prerequisites to achieve that objective. Should Ankara continue to support Hamas without attempting to moderate its attitude toward Israel, Ankara will not only forsake the opportunity to lead but will be labeled as an obstructionist, especially in the eyes of the Arab-Sunni state that Turkey is trying to court, at a time when the entire region is in the process of geopolitical realignment.
Ankara can be sure that Iran will strongly and continuously encourage Hamas to hold onto his anti-Israel line under the pretext of serving the Palestinians' cause. In fact, Iran is only looking to serve its regional ambitions and will go to great lengths to protect its national interests, especially by supporting its surrogates such as Hamas and Hezbollah in carrying out its bidding. It is time for Turkey to realize that Tehran's and Ankara's national interests do not coincide and that in fact, the two countries may soon be on a collision course not only over post-Bashar Assad's Syria but over their overall regional ambitions. If Ankara considers regional stability central to its own best national interests, then Turkey must spare no efforts to wean Hamas off of Tehran. Should Turkey decide to act in this direction, it can certainly count on both the US' and the EU's support.
Turkey is well positioned to persuade Hamas to renounce violence which is a pre-requisite to becoming an active partner in the peace negotiations and at the same time, is able to provide Hamas' leadership with the political cover they need to transition from a militant to a non-violent resistance movement. Once the label of being considered a terrorist organization is removed, Turkey may then invite Khalid Mashaal to move his political headquarters from Damascus to Ankara. In so doing, Ankara will not only further distance Hamas from Iran but will help legitimize Hamas in the eyes of the US and the EU. Moreover, Ankara will be in a strong position to assert itself as a significant player in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while beginning to mend its relations with Israel.
Regional leadership is not a given and it cannot be built on divisions and discords. Turkey must earn the regional leadership role it seeks to play. There is no better time than now for Ankara to use its influence on Hamas to make a crucial contribution to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while enhancing its leadership role in a region in transformation.
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