When pressed on the subject, Sakir Torunlar, Turkey’s veteran diplomat in Jerusalem, concedes that he has acquired a place in the history books—“maybe one line,” he says, sitting down for coffee at a hotel on the Bosphorus during a recent trip to Istanbul. Torunlar, who has been consular general in Jerusalem since 2010, took on a new title last month: the world’s first ambassador to Palestine.
The Turkish government has been one of Palestine’s most vocal international advocates—foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu traveled to the United Nations in New York to make the case for its statehood on a tense night last November when the issue went to a vote. Despite vociferous objections from America and Israel, the vote passed and Palestine was elevated to the status of “non-member state.” It was a big win for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and paved the way for Tornular’s appointment. “It is a state recognized by the international community. So that means they are in a position to receive ambassadors,” Torunlar says. “And I hope I will not be alone.”
Despite Torunlar’s new title, his job will essentially remain the same. As consular general in Jerusalem, he had already acted as a de facto ambassador to Palestine. But the title of ambassador, Torunlar says, sends a message. “The job I have been doing since submitting my credentials did not change from the week before,” he says. “It’s a symbolic change. But it has weight.”
Though the United States objected to the idea of Palestinian statehood “until the last minute, until five to midnight,” Torunlar says, it has accepted the results of the voting—and he sees his appointment as further confirmation of Palestine’s new status. “Since November 30, this is the result on the ground,” he says.
Torunlar’s new position may also be symbolic of Turkey’s push for greater regional influence. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been careful to curry favor with both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, led by Abbas, and its rival in Gaza, the Islamist militant group Hamas. And Turkey may even be eyeing a role for itself in a rebooted Israel-Palestine peace process, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry—who has made two trips to Israel in his first three months in office—has been keen in kick into motion.
“Turkey has clearly been seeking a role in the Middle East peace process for some time,” says Ross Wilson, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who was ambassador to Turkey when Ankara tried to broker a peace deal between Israel and Syria in 2008. Now, Wilson says, Turkey might see itself as well-positioned to become the region’s top diplomatic broker—something that would boost “the overall Turkish government effort to raise its profile in the region and be seen as a problem-solver.”
America, for its part, has been aggressively pursuing a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Ties between the two countries had shattered after the 2010 Gaza flotilla fiasco, but the Obama administration has plenty of reasons to want to see reconciliation, with the civil war in Syria likely chief among them. To settle the longstanding grudge match between the former allies, President Obama brought Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu together on a phone call in March, where they made up over the raid and agreed to begin mending ties.
As reconciliation moves forward, some in Turkey have started to look ahead to a potential role in a rebooted peace process. “If [the Israelis] are serious this time about reengaging in the peace process, I think having normal relations with Turkey, and Turkish involvement in the process, would be a big help,” said a senior official in Ankara ahead of a Kerry trip to Turkey and Israel in April. In addition to Turkey’s potential influence over Hamas, this official said, “if the peace process is going in the right direction, and Turkey is coming out and supporting that, that will obviously make the situation much more palatable on the Arab street.”
Torunlar puts things more diplomatically, saying that Ankara is “encouraged” by the new Kerry push for peace, and is ready if needed. “We made it very clear to everybody that if there is anything we can do for the two-state solution, we will not spare any effort,” he says. “We are ready to do our best—if asked.”
Such a role would jibe with the aspirations of an ascendant Turkey, which is pushing for greater regional clout. And it would be much more in line with Ankara’s ambitions than its current involvement in Syria, where it is actively pursuing regime change. Before the civil war there, which has led a disgusted Erdogan to support the rebellion, Turkey had focused on a soft power approach—most famously, with its policy of “Zero Problems with our Neighbors,” many of whom still harbor suspicions of Turkish power from the Ottoman Empire days.
But whatever Turkey’s aspirations, says Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the role it plays when it comes to Israel and Palestine may be out of its hands. “It’s difficult to put this in an artful sort of way. It’s not up to the Turks who gets involved in the Palestine-Israel peace process. It’s really up to the Israelis,” Cook says.
While Turkey may be moving toward repaired relations with Israel, Cook adds, its long-time hard stance when it comes to Palestine may make Israel wary of bringing Ankara on board. “The Israelis would say that they trust Erdogan on Syria, but they don’t trust him on the Palestinians,” Cook says.
This mistrust may also stem from the fact that Turkey has kept cozy relations with Hamas, whose leader Khaled Meshaal has made multiple visits to Ankara in recent years. While Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization by both America and Israel, Turkey has maintained that the group could be a legitimate partner in peace negotiations.
Some in the Turkish press have speculated that Ankara might be able to help Hamas reconcile with Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, providing a unified front that would allow a two-state solution to gain steam. Turkey’s economic clout could also be used to apply pressure. “There are a lot of ways to put a peace process together,” says Wilson, the former U.S. ambassador. “At the end of the day I think that’s the point the Turks are trying to make—they can make some contributions, and they don’t necessarily run contrary to American interests.”
There’s little international optimism, however, that Turkey would make progress where other powers have failed—there have been multiple efforts to reconcile the two sides since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006 elections. And critics charge that Turkey’s coziness with Hamas risks bolstering the group at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas was reportedly angered by the recent announcement of a planned visit by Erdogan to Gaza—as were the Americans. Kerry warned Erdogan against the trip, saying it could hurt efforts to restart peace talks. “We would like to see the parties begin with as little outside distraction as possible,” Kerry said.
Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Program, says that Erdogan is engaged in a difficult balancing act on Palestine. “He has to provide a balance between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and at the same time the Israelis,” he says. “It looks like a tall order at the moment.”
But Cagaptay expects Turkey to forge ahead, with Erdogan likely making the controversial Gaza visit after this month’s trip to Washington. “I think Erdogan’s visit to Gaza will be a major tour de force,” he says.