Reports have been circulating that Turkey has agreed to replace Iran as Hamas’ primary financial benefactor, providing $300 million in annual aid. (Thanks to Yigal Schleifer for tracking down the origins of the rumor.)
Turkey explicitly denies the story. Assuming the denial to be the truth, this is the best foreign policy decision Turkey has made in some time. As I’ve noted elsewhere, changing circumstances in the Middle East and elsewhere have made it difficult for Turkey to construct a coherent foreign policy strategy, and to follow through with analogous tactical decisions. But although much of this is beyond Turkey’s control, Ankara has not helped by adopting unnecessarily belligerent rhetoric, and by demanding that others fit into the expectations it has constructed for them.
Under these conditions, now would certainly not be the time to tie itself to Hamas. Hamas remains a spoiler in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, despite some internal policy debates and the occasional public statement (normally immediately contradicted by other Hamas leaders) corresponding to Fatah’s negotiating position.
Although Turkey might have the field to itself if it were to become the major patron of Hamas, this would be morally problematic and cause deeper political problems—given that most of the rest of the world sees Fatah as the premier Palestinian address for negotiations and largesse. Israel would certainly see this as a further provocation by Turkey, which in turn would undermine even more the role Turkey had been playing as mediator in Israeli-Palestinian talks.
It is to that role that Turkey should try to return. Its diplomatic and strategic position in the region make it the ideal mediator; its past history of moderate success indicates it can produce results; and now that Egypt must focus much of its attention on its internal affairs, Turkey can still have much of the negotiating arena to itself.
The indications that Hamas itself is changing tactics, by criticizing the Syrian regime’s assault on its citizens and moving out of the country, signifies a potential opportunity for the peace process. Turkey is well-placed to take advantage of this, but becoming the patron of Hamas would undermine it all.
Turkey can still strengthen its relationship to Hamas without becoming its sponsor. Hosting Hamas leaders in Turkey for working visits and promoting acceptance of the two-state solution, and recognition of Israel’s security needs and its narrative of the conflict are but two contributions. They might seem minor, but they are important for the longer game, and ultimately for a successful final agreement.
Given the difficulties Israel has in talking directly to Hamas, combined with the fact that Hamas is clearly entrenched in Gaza and must be accounted for in any final resolution to the conflict, somebody will have to talk to Hamas.
For Turkey’s sake, it might as well take on that role.