Interview with Mr. Mouin Rabbani: Insights into Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Palestine’s View of Turkey
Interview with Mr. Mouin Rabbani:
Insights into Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Palestine’s View of Turkey
Turkey’s Position in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Interview Series – I
As Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), we conducted an interview with Mr. Mouin Rabbani, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, co-editor of Jadaliyya Ezine and contributing editor of Middle East Report, to discuss Turkey’s position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the wake of Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza. Mr. Rabbani has published and commented widely on Palestinian affairs and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Rabbani previously worked as Senior Middle East Analyst at the International Crisis Group, and as Palestine Director at the Palestinian American Research Centre.
Synopsis of the Interview
“…it was mainly Israel rather than the government in Ankara that was responsible for the damage to this (Turkish-Israeli) relationship.”
“The main mediator on issues relating to Hamas, specifically the Gaza Strip and Israel has traditionally been Egypt and it is a role that Egypt guards very jealously.”
“Israelis and the Egyptians became extremely hostile to both Turkey and Qatar and made removing have removed Qatar and Turkey from this equation almost as a strategic priority.”
“I also do not believe that any state can successfully mediate between Israelis and Palestinians for the simple reason that Israel is not interested in a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“It (Gaza Strip) has been under Israeli occupation for almost half a century which means that Israel, at least in theory, knows as much about the Gaza Strip as the Turkish government knows about Ankara.”
“It was almost ideal battlefield conditions if you look at it objectively, but yet Israel failed to achieve a single political or military objective.”
“Did Hamas defeat Israel on the traditional sense that one party in a conflict defeats the other? No, of course it did not, but I think it managed to deter Israel from proceeding further, managed to prevent Israel from achieving one of its objectives and I think it is probably the case that Hamas has convinced Israel to think twice before trying this again.”
“…both Fatah and Hamas are much more focused on gaining factional advantage within the framework of the Palestinian authority in the occupied territories rather than turning towards the big picture and seeking to develop a common national strategy.”
“I do not really see that any international organisation undertook any activity or took any position that is there to be assessed.”
“We are now in a situation, I would say, where the primary failure is the absence of regular, sound and stable relationships between so many of key player of the region. That is of course not only the case with respect to Palestine, the Gaza Strip or Hamas, but for so many unfolding crises in the region.”
Full Text of the Interview
Mr. Rabbani, thank you very much on behalf of Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey) for sparing us your time to have this interview. We would like to start by hearing about your assessment of Turkey’s involvement in the recent tension between Israel and Hamas, which resulted in weeks of Israeli air raids and ground attacks on Gaza. How would you summarize Turkey’s changing role in the Israeli Palestinian conflict in light of the most recent attacks on Gaza? What major differences do you observe between the pre-AKP and AKP era in Turkey?
I think those are two different questions because, I think the changes mostly precede the recent Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip. I think, obviously the main change is that until the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party – AKP) came into office in Turkey and for quite some time after that, Turkey was Israel’s main strategic ally in the region. Particularly in the 1990s, in the wake of the Oslo Agreement, Turkish-Israeli strategic cooperation had always existed, but let’s say that it had not been very visible on accounts of Turkish sensitivities to issues such as Jerusalem, the absence of Arab-Israeli peace and so on. In the wake of the Oslo Agreement, they reached unprecedentedly visible and unprecedentedly formal dimensions, as you may know in the 1990s, there were also the cases, for instance, Israeli air force was able to use Turkish territory for training missions and also perhaps for other things, and so on. It really became an extremely solid strategic partnership which also had very important economic and other dimensions. That began to change in recent years and I do not think that it is so much a direct result of the AKP assuming power and office in Turkey, although I think that its policies are more hesitant. Nevertheless, at least in the initial years the strategic partnership continued. What I think happened is that it was mainly Israel rather than the government in Ankara that was responsible for the damage to this (Turkish-Israeli) relationship. First of all, there was, I mean if I name a few key incidents, in 2008, almost immediately before Israel’s first significant offensive against the Gaza Strip since the 2005 disengagement, one of the senior Israeli leaders, the Prime Minister Olmert or at that time Minister of Foreign Affairs Livni had been in Ankara for a meeting with his Turkish counterparts on the basis of Turkey’s efforts to mediate peace talks between Syria and Israel. He did not say a word about the impending Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip, even though the decision had already been taken in Israel. This was something that did upset Turkish government very much, particularly because it ruined the mediation efforts between the Assad Government in Damascus and Olmert Government in Israel. This led to a significant deterioration of relations. Thereafter, of course there was the Mavi Marmara incident where you know, in addition to the killing of 9 civilian passengers on a Turkish merchant ship by the Israeli military, Israelis found it impossible to offer a simple apology and so there were all kinds of sanctions imposed after that. I would also say that while there has been a very clear deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations during the last decade, I think it is also important not to exaggerate the extent of this deterioration. My understanding is that the intelligence relationship between Turkey and Israel, even if some of the Israeli privileges had been revoked, it still remains intact and may even have expanded in recent years on account of shared interest regarding Syria, for example. The economic relationship remains intact and according to some reports, it is even expanding. However, having said that certainly if you compare Turkish-Israeli relations in 2014 to what they were – let’s say in 2000 or 1995 –, there has been a significant cooling and deterioration. Although there is by no means an irrevocable rupture in Turkish-Israeli relations, I think it is also fair to say that it is extremely unlikely that they will ever be what they previously were or at least not in the foreseeable future.
“…it was mainly Israel rather than the government in Ankara that was responsible for the damage to this (Turkish-Israeli) relationship”
As far as your remarks concerned, can we say that the deteriorated relations between Turkey and Israel do not result from AKP’s stance?
I think the AKP has been a factor in the sense that if you compare the views of the AKP, –particularly former Prime Minister and now President Erdogan’s views on this issue –, they are obviously quite different than of his predecessors, –particularly the military officers who repeatedly governed Turkey and who had a much more positive view of relations and of cooperation with Israel. So, I am not saying that it is irrelevant. It is a factor, perhaps even a significant factor, but the point I am trying to make is that the main contribution to the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations has been made by Israel rather than by Turkey. In other words, if Israel had not sabotaged Turkish mediation efforts between Syria and Israel in 2008 – which if I understand correctly is a mediation that Turkey was undertaking at Israel’s request –, if Israel had not attacked the Mavi Marmara, if Israel had not launched this basically international campaign to seek to undermine Turkey’s reputation that negatively affected its relationship with Turkey, I question the extent to which there would be as much tension in this relationship as there is today.
What are the implications of Turkey’s failure to broker a peace deal between Israel and Hamas? Is Turkey out of the picture?
It is not a simple question to answer and the short answer is both yes and no. The situation is as follows: The main mediator on issues relating to Hamas, specifically the Gaza Strip and Israel has traditionally been Egypt and it is a role that Egypt guards very jealously. Now what has happened in the last year – since the military coup in Egypt – is that Egypt’s relationship with Hamas has deteriorated to the point of non-existence, while at the same time Egypt’s relations with Turkey have also deteriorated drastically. Partly as a result of the developments in Egypt and developments elsewhere in the region, in Syria and so on, Hamas became increasingly isolated and was basically left out with only two friends, allies – whatever you want to call them – in the region, Qatar and Turkey. So, if you look at what happened during the recent conflict in Gaza, Israel attacked the Gaza Strip. The Egyptians in close coordination with Tony Blair and with the Israelis put forward a cease fire proposal – that was cleared with the Israelis – before it was finalized and was basically presented to Hamas through the media. For reasons that had to do with both the substance of the ceasefire proposal and the manner in which it was presented and probably also partly on account of state of Egyptians-Hamas relations, Hamas rejected it. Then, it became necessary to find a way to communicate initially – at least indirectly with Hamas. So, then the American Secretary of State, John Kerry tried to present an alternative ceasefire proposal. He, – as you know, he consulted quite intensively with both Turkey and Qatar. I think the purpose of the Americans was to use Hamas’ main friends to seek to exercise pressure on Hamas to accept the U.S.A.’s ceasefire proposal. Nonetheless, in that equation, of course, – it is never just a one-way street – Qatar and Turkey also presented concerns and points of view of Hamas to the Americans. Now, at this point the Israelis and the Egyptians became extremely hostile to both Turkey and Qatar and have removed Qatar and Turkey from this equation almost as a strategic priority and turned back to very much to Cairo’s course. Now, the Egyptians and particularly the Israelis have been bragging ever since then that one of their main achievements during this latest crisis was to successfully remove Turkey and also Qatar from the diplomatic equation. Well, I am not sure to what extent that is true. First of all, it was their conduct that necessitated the outreach to Turkey. Second, I think while it is true that Turkey did not play a formal role in the conclusion of the ceasefire arrangements, I am sure that once details are released, we will find out that there was a bunch of indirect and behind-the-scenes, informal communications going on in which Turkey and for that matter Qatar were involved.
Do you think Hamas may have overestimated Turkey’s role with regard to the conflict?
I am not so sure that Hamas ever realistically believed that the Egyptian mediation could be replaced by Turkish mediation, because one of the objectives that Hamas sought to achieve was to get the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt reopened, at the conclusion of the Israeli offensive. I think it must have been very clear to them from the outset that this is something only Egypt can deliver and particularly in view of the cool relations between Cairo and Ankara that is not something Turkey could achieve for Hamas. I think the second objective – which Hamas has partially achieved – is that there are now once again relations even if not direct and independent relations between Cairo and Hamas. Prior to the Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip, relations between Egypt and Hamas were almost exclusively limited to a single Hamas leader, Mousa Abu Marzuq, who was permitted to remain in Cairo and other Hamas leaders whether from the Gaza Strip or in exile were simply persona non grata in Egypt. During these negotiations, – in order to ensure that Hamas would accept the ceasefire that was eventually agreed –, all of a sudden Hamas leaders from Gaza, from Beirut and so on were welcome guests once again in Cairo. Relations hardly normalized and the Egyptians I think only dealt with Hamas to the extent they felt they had to. Nevertheless, I think this was a significant breakthrough for Hamas. Now, in terms of Turkey, I believe that Hamas was hoping primarily that Turkey could make its positions and its concerns known to parties with whom it was not in direct contact, for example, the U.S.A. in relation to my response to your previous question. I am sure that Hamas was also hoping that given Turkey was one of extremely few parties during this crisis that did not consider weakening Hamas as a strategic objective. Therefore, Hamas was also hoping that Turkey would be able to use its diplomatic clout and sway to affect any outcome in favour of Hamas. To what extent it has succeeded I think is very much an open question for reasons that we have already discussed.
“Israelis and the Egyptians became extremely hostile to both Turkey and Qatar and made removing have removed Qatar and Turkey from this equation almost as a strategic priority”
Does the Turkish government’s political hostility towards Israel have an impact on the course of the conflict? Is Turkey’s stance helping or hindering the future of the Palestinian people, or neither?
I think there are several ways to answer to that question. If you go back to – for example 2008 –, they had an impact because there was a clear change in Turkey’s policies or at least its positions and attitudes towards Israel as a direct result of Israeli actions against the Palestinian people. The same could be said about the Mavi Marmara. Now, I think it is a more difficult question to answer. While there is an increased level of hostility between Israel and Turkey on accounts of Israel’s constant attacks against the Turkish government and individual Turkish leaders that are often quite vulgar, there is obviously further deterioration in the relationship, but I at least do not know whether it has had an impact on issues such as intelligence cooperation, the Turkish-Israeli economic relationship and so on. In that respect, I have not seen any additional changes in the relationship for me to provide a clear answer to your question. In more general terms, my own view is that to the extent that foreign states and particularly powerful and central regional states such as Turkey have lessened their relations with Israel, ceased strategic cooperation with it and reviewed their existing economic, trade and other relations with Israel to the extent that Israel is made to feel that there is a price to be paid for its policies towards the Palestinian people, I think that can only be a good thing. I also do not believe that any state can successfully mediate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, for the simple reason that Israel is not interested in a resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you accept that the minimum condition for a resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip including East Jerusalem, and the fair resolution of the refugee question, then it is quite clear that Israel has absolutely no interest in such an agreement. Under such circumstances, mediation absolutely makes no sense. What you need is to put pressure on Israel to accept the framework of such a settlement.
Considering Palestinian people, are they also subjected to the deteriorating relations between Turkish and Israeli states?
Palestinians, of course see tension between Israel and any state as always a good thing. I think the short answer is that this is no exception.
Gaza’s economy is going through troubled times as Hamas loses not only political allies, but also economic and military support. What does this imply for the future of Gaza and Hamas?
Of course the Gaza Strip has been under unprecedented siege; blockade etc. whatever you want to call it since 2006. In addition, in the last two years or so, Hamas has also lost additional regional allies and regional support as a result of its break with the government in Syria, as a result of the cooling of its relations with Iran and particularly because of the change of regime in Egypt. They got to the point where Hamas in the past few months – for the first time – was unable to regularly pay the salaries of its civil servants under the conditions of the continuing rivalry with the West Bank and so on. That is not only a financial or a budgetary crisis, but also a political crisis. In terms of the role Turkey plays in this crisis is a little unclear. I have not, for example, seen that Turkey has been prepared to or has offered to give direct budget support to the government in the Gaza Strip. I know that there are plans for economic aid, including, for example, sending a ship to generate power and electricity and so on. That will also be interesting to see what impact these plans may have on not only Turkish assistance to Gaza Strip, but also on the further deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations. Nevertheless, getting back to your question, particularly after the Israel’s recent offensive that caused in unprecedented devastation to civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip, the Gaza Strip is now more in need of normal economic life, normal trade relations than ever before. However, it is not clear at all when or if or how it is going together particularly because the main powers that are mainly Israel, the U.S.A., the Europe, also Hamas’ regional rivals such as the Egypt and the Palestinian Authority still believe that this kind of pressure on the general population, the civilian infrastructure and the siege can have political benefits.
“Did Hamas defeat Israel on the traditional sense that one party in a conflict defeats the other? No, of course it did not, but I think it managed to deter Israel from proceeding further, managed to prevent Israel from achieving one of its objectives and I think it is probably the case that Hamas has convinced Israel to think twice before trying this again”
Following the ceasefire brokered by Egypt last month, Hamas has officially declared to have ‘won’ the war. How realistic is this statement? What is your assessment of the terms of this ceasefire?
Well, both Israel and Hamas claimed to have won the war. I think we have to look at this situation. The Gaza Strip is an extremely small piece of territory; I think it is probably smaller than Istanbul. It has been under Israeli occupation for almost half a century which means that Israel at least in theory knows as much about the Gaza Strip as the Turkish government knows about Ankara. It knows everything about everybody. The Gaza Strip consists of flat and exposed terrain, and it has been under blockade for years now, it does not have advanced weapons and so on. If you look at it on paper objectively, it should not take Israel more than a few hours, perhaps a few days to administer at decisive, overwhelming, and perhaps even historic defeat upon Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip. It was almost ideal battlefield conditions if you look at it objectively, but yet Israel failed to achieve a single political or military objective. I presume that the Israeli military is now the laughing stock of not only the armed groups in the Gaza Strip and the Middle East, but also military specialists and officers in Ankara, into headquarters in Brussels and in the Pentagon. They are probably also having a good laugh at the expense of the Israeli military. It is just beyond shocking that they were unable to achieve a single military objective under such ideal battlefield conditions. You know that this was not the Vietcong that they were fighting against and the Gaza Strip is not Vietnam. The challenges should not have been all that great for an army that brags 24 hours a day about how it is one of the most powerful armies in the world and it is at least a regional superpower. So the extent of Israel’s military failure has been very shocking and I think that it is on this basis that Hamas claims victory. Now, how do you assess that claim of victory? I think that they were successful in self-defence in terms of preventing the Israelis from proceeding further into the Gaza Strip, in terms of causing high costs on the Israeli military and on the Israeli economy during this crisis, but with it also came extraordinarily high cost to the Palestinians in terms of lost lives and civilian infrastructure. Although I should point out that Israel was reduced to bragging about numbers of civilians killed and number of apartment buildings destroyed as if this was somehow of strategic military significance. So, did Hamas defeat Israel on the traditional sense that one party in a conflict defeats the other? No, of course it did not, but I think it managed to deter Israel from proceeding further, managed to prevent Israel from achieving one of its objectives and I think it is probably the case that Hamas has convinced Israel to think twice before trying this again. If you accept that the purpose of the Israeli military is to enable the Israeli leadership to impose its political will on Israel’s adversaries, – which is what armed forces are usually deployed for –, the army was simply not up to the task.
How likely is it for Hamas and Fatah to follow a common political agenda under these current circumstances?
In order for Fatah and Hamas to follow a common political agenda, Fatah and Hamas will need to agree on a common political strategy. For such a common political strategy, I think the essential pre-condition is that the leadership will need to activate – what is called the temporary or provisional leadership committee –which is kind of a halfway house to the integration of Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In other words, you have at least some form of collective decision-making in which the main parties are able to exercise a veto and parties that are represented on this committee do not undermine decisions they do not like. However, I do not see that is happening anytime soon and I think an important part of this reason is that both Fatah and Hamas are much more focused on gaining factional advantage within the framework of the Palestinian Authority in the occupied territories rather than turning towards the big picture and seeking to develop a common national strategy. A big part of the problem is that any national strategy is going to demand very significant concessions and compromises from both parties, for example, it would require the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to basically renounce Oslo agreement and to negotiate only on the basis of a clear agenda that leads to the end of occupation as opposed to this meaningless and pointless diplomacy that we have seen in the past 20 years. For Hamas’ side of the equation, it would mean subordinating its military as well as its political agenda to one that is no longer exclusively determined by Hamas. I do not think that any of these things are impossible, but the challenges are significant and they are made even more significant because of the consistent interference of outside powers, for example the interference of the West who has considered Hamas’ integration into the PLO as a red line. Unfortunately, it is a red line that so far the leadership in Ramallah is respecting.
“I do not really see that any international organisation undertook any activity or took any position that is there to be assessed”
How has the role of international organisations, specifically the United Nations, been during the recent attacks on Gaza? How would you assess their stance?
I frankly did not see anything to assess. I think most of the international organisations, not just the United Nations (UN), but even more the Arab League largely chose invisibility during the latest conflict. Quite late in the day, after Israel attacked on the UN facilities in the Gaza Strip, and the level of destruction and casualties reached an intolerable level, there were finally some strong statements from the Secretary General of the UN. However, I do not really see that any international organisation undertook any activity or took any position that is there to be assessed. I would make an exception for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), that took its responsibilities seriously and consistently made its views public.
Finally, what do you think that Turkey has done ‘wrong’ in its mediation efforts? How could Turkey have succeeded as a mediator between Israel and Hamas?
I do not think that the answer to your question would be for me to identify what Turkey did right or what Turkey did wrong. I think the more pertinent point to make, and perhaps the more meaningful answer is to put this in the context, which is to say that now you have a situation in this region where effectively everyone is at war with everyone else. Under such conditions, it is extremely difficult for any party to play a meaningful role for reasons that often have nothing to do with the particular conflict being analysed. We spoke at some length about the relations between Egypt and Turkey. In a context in which the Egyptian-Turkish relationship is so poor, I do not think that it really makes sense to pose the question of how could Turkey have cooperated better or more effectively in efforts to achieve a ceasefire. The question would only make sense if you had a sound and stable Turkish-Egyptian relationship in which Turkey would have been able to play a complete role in these efforts and would have achieved certain success and certain failures which you could then talk about. We are now in a situation, I would say, where the primary failure is the absence of regular, sound and stable relationships between so many of the region’s key players. That is of course not only the case with respect to Palestine, the Gaza Strip or Hamas but for so many unfolding crises in the region.
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Please cite this publication as follows:
Research Turkey (September, 2014), “Interview with Mr. Mouin Rabbani: Insights into Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Palestine’s View of Turkey”, Vol. III, Issue 9, pp.78-90, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=6939)