Israel worried by Erdogan's meddling in Palestinian affairs

Israel believes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to gain some control over Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority and is therefore trying to influence the Palestinian battle to succeed Mahmoud Abbas.

al-monitor Turkish President President Tayyip Erdogan attends the NATO leaders summit in Watford, Britain, Dec. 4, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Toby Melville.

Dec 18, 2019

The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel were surprised to hear Turkey’s announcement on Dec. 13 that former Fatah senior Mohammed Dahlan is on the country’s most wanted list for terrorism. Previously, in November 2018, Turkey had accused Dahlan of involvement in the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Ankara, the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, and for trying to damage the Turkish lire. Turkey has now placed a price of 10 million Turkish lire ($1.75 million) on Dahlan’s head.

In a conversation with Al-Monitor, one of Dahlan’s close associates rejected the Turkish accusations. “That’s crazy,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Even [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan doesn’t believe that Dahlan has any connection to the coup against him.”

Dahlan has lived in Abu Dhabi since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expelled him from the Fatah movement in October 2011 and called him a “traitor.” Dahlan’s people were labeled supporters of “the nation’s enemy,” and those receiving salaries from the PA saw those payments halted. In 2016, a Palestinian court convicted Dahlan in abstentia for allegedly stealing $16 million and sentenced him to three years in prison. Abbas also stripped Dahlan of his parliamentary immunity. Remarkably, Jam’at Abu Fadi, or Dahlan’s band, as PA members scornfully call his supporters, is not accusing Abbas or any other PA higher-ups of involvement in their idolized boss becoming one of Turkey's most wanted.

“Abbas is not involved, but he’s certainly enjoying all this,” another of Dahlan’s close associates told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. According to that associate, “[Abbas and his potential successors] are as happy as anything. Someone else is doing the [dirty] work for them.” The source claims that Dahlan views all this as “nonsense,” and despite the threat to his life, he intends to continue criticizing Erdogan, “as he has done over the last seven years.” Just last month, Dahlan said in an interview with the Saudi television network MBC Masr, “Erdogan is delusional and mentally unstable, wishing to resurrect the Ottoman Empire in order to occupy the Arab world.”

According to the source, all of Erdogan’s actions against Dahlan are connected to an intra-Arab struggle between the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents. While Turkey and Qatar support the Brotherhood everywhere, Egypt and Saudi Arabia view the Brotherhood’s extensions and branches as evil. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is spearheading the struggle against the organization. Sisi and Dahlan are considered to be close friends and this bond of friendship led in 2017 to a reconciliation between Dahlan and Hamas, even though the Islamist movement represents a branch of the Brotherhood. The source also said that branding Dahlan a wanted terrorist was meant to taint Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, whom the Brotherhood hates. In recent years, Dahlan has served as Mohammed’s adviser.

All these explanations that avoid pointing the finger at Abbas, however, are too simplistic. Perhaps the real goal of Dahlan's associates in this regard is to ward off pressure by Abbas and his Palestinian security forces, who view them as subversive “troublemakers from Abu Dhabi.”

Meanwhile, an Israeli defense source told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “Turning Mohammed Dahlan into a ‘wanted’ figure is, without doubt, part of the succession struggle within the Palestinian Authority, which is now gaining ground.” According to the source, this is not the first time that Erdogan has tried to influence Palestinian issues. For example, in recent years, Erdogan has been active in East Jerusalem affairs, using the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency to funnel money to local merchants and to try to take control of properties.

In Hamas-controlled Gaza, Erdogan is viewed as a hero and leader who staunchly backs the Palestinians. His attempts to influence power centers in the West Bank, however, have thus far failed miserably. His efforts appeared paltry and unsophisticated in trying to use money to secure control. Regardless of this, that he made the effort proved that Erdogan wants a foothold on the Palestinian West Bank, primarily in Jerusalem. He may think that the Palestinians' succession battle has already begun and that Dahlan might be a leading candidate to succeed Abbas. Erdogan would hate to see that happen.

As noted, Turkish efforts to defame Dahlan are nothing new. Not so long ago, on Oct. 31, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused Dahlan of being “an agent of Israel” in an interview with Qatar’s Al Jazeera. Cavusoglu also said that Turkey knows that Mohammed bin Zayed is trying to promote Dahlan to replace Abbas.

The dubious monikers of “Israeli agent” and traitor assigned to Dahlan did not come out of nowhere. In 2015, Palestinian news sites reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman had met with Dahlan in Paris and told Dahlan that he viewed him as a worthy candidate for Abbas’ position. At the time, everyone involved denied the report, but even in 2014, Liberman had hinted that he was in contact with Dahlan. So, whenever the Palestinian succession battle heats up, Dahlan is dubbed the “Israeli agent.” Turkey has now joined the chorus.

The PA is talking about holding elections in the near future, but it is doubtful that Abbas actually intends to go through with them. The price on the head of the “terrorist” Dahlan, whether Abbas is involved or not, is express proof that potential challengers are already sharpening their knives and that some have “patrons,” such as Erdogan.

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