Last month, sixteen-year-old Palestinian Fawzi Al Juneidi was beaten, blindfolded, and arrested by a dozen Israeli soldiers, after he protested Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. A photograph capturing that moment went viral on social media. Last week, Turkish media enthusiastically reported that Al Juneidi was being received by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. Although the event gave the teenager an occasion to talk about his suffering under Israeli occupation, it was yet another publicity stunt by Erdogan, who is trying hard to present himself as a spokesperson for the Palestinian cause.
Indeed, the pro-government Daily Sabah used Al Juneidi’s visit as an opportunity to praise Erdogan as a champion of the Palestinian people. The paper quoted Al Juneidi as saying: “I heard about President Erdoğan’s remarks about me and I was very happy. We love him very much.”
While many Arab leaders remained indifferent, Erdogan did criticize the U.S. decision on Jerusalem, labeling Israel a terrorist state. On December 13, Erdogan also called for an extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, to address Trump’s decision and to call for the recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.
This is not the first time Erodgan has spoken out against Israel. In 2009, he publicly denounced former Israeli President Shimon Peres’s crimes in Gaza. Following Israel’s 2010 attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, in which nine Turkish activists were killed by Israeli forces, Turkey downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel.
Erdogan’s pro-Palestinian stance is not, however, only based on opposition to Israel’s violations of human rights and international law. Rather, Erdogan has also used the Palestinian cause to promote both his and Turkey’s position in the Middle East. Erdogan has long tried to assert himself as the political representative of all Muslims. In line with this, he has presented the Palestinian struggle as an exclusively Muslim one, thereby echoing Zionist narratives that disregard Palestine’s religious diversity and the anti-colonial nature of Palestinian resistance.
Most importantly, Erdogan’s rhetoric cannot hide the fact that Turkey, which was the first Muslim-majority state to recognize Israel in 1949, remains the apartheid state’s closest Muslim ally. Economic relations between Israel and Turkey are flourishing. Current economic projects between Israel and Turkey include the construction of a gas pipeline in the Eastern Mediterranean that would bring a financial benefit of several billion dollars to Turkey. Tel Aviv is also amongst the most important routes for national flag carrier Turkish Airlines, which transports more passengers in and out of Ben Gurion Airport than any other foreign airline.
As a European nation-state, a NATO member, and historically close ally of both the United States and Israel, Turkey remains an inherent part of Western geo-political structures. Of course, Erdogan has to be given credit for verbally protesting Israel’s human rights violations. Still, he remains more concerned with boosting his own profile, and that of his country, than with the liberation of the Palestinian people.