Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been offering in recent months to mend relations and exchange ambassadors with Israel. Meanwhile, his government was busy helping convicted terrorist conspirator Sami al Arian organize an Istanbul symposium dedicated to delegitimizing the Jewish state. For as long as Erdogan remains a leading patron of violent antisemitism, he should not expect his calls for a rapprochement to convince his counterparts in Jerusalem.
The conference in question, “Challenging Apartheid in Palestine, Reclaiming the Narrative, Formulating a Vision,” took place at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University between June 18 and June 23. The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism co-sponsored the event. Additionally, Erdogan’s son Bilal, who is the chairman of the board of trustees of the Islamist-rooted foundation that established IZU, spoke at the conference.
The United States sentenced al Arian in 2006 to 57 months in prison and deported him to Turkey in 2015 for conspiring to aid Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which Washington designated as a terrorist group in 1995. Al Arian helped found an organization in 1988 that the FBI would shut down in 1995 for serving as a front of the PIJ. In the early 1990s, al Arian helped a PIJ cofounder obtain a U.S. visa and founded a think tank led by Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a colleague of al Arian at the University of South Florida who would leave the post in 1995 to become the PIJ’s secretary-general. Al Arian became the CIGA’s director in 2017.
Al Arian set the conference’s tone when he challenged the existence of the Jewish state, declaring, “This is a global struggle, and it has to focus on the task of dismantling a racist, settler-colonialist regime in Palestine.”
Other conference speakers embraced similar views. Mohammad Akram al Adlouni, for example, has strong ties to Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group. Al Adlouni is a member of Hamas’s overseas consultative body, according to an article published on Hamas’s website in June 2021. The think tank al Adlouni heads has provided a platform for numerous Hamas officials, including former Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh, foreign relations chief Osama Hamdan, and Palestinian Authority parliament member Ahmad Atoun. In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned the charity that al Adlouni ran from at least 2005 to 2010 “for being controlled by and acting for or on behalf of Hamas.”
Shawan Jabarin, another conference speaker and the head of the Palestinian lawfare organization al Haq, is a senior member of the terrorist group known as the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, according to Israeli court documents. An Israeli Supreme Court justice described Jabarin as a “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde,” heading a nongovernmental organization while also belonging to a terrorist group.
Osama Abu Irshaid, the executive director of American Muslims for Palestine, also spoke at the conference. According to 2016 congressional testimony delivered by Jonathan Schanzer, a senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, numerous AMP staff and board members previously staffed or were affiliated with the Holy Land Foundation, the Islamic Association for Palestine, and KindHearts, three organizations the U.S. shut down for helping finance Hamas. Abu Irshaid himself was the editor of al Zaytouna, a journal published by the IAP, and served on the board of the American Muslim Society, an alleged pseudonym for the IAP.
Abu Irshaid’s ties to the Turkish government extend to its top leader. Erdogan met with Irshaid on Aug. 24, 2020, in 2014, and several other times.
The confluence of Erdogan’s virulent antisemitism, condemned in May by the State Department and the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, with the terrorism of Hamas and PIJ leads to a toxic mix. Turkey, which was once a key security partner for Israel, started providing Hamas with a convenient base for operations following Erdogan’s rise to power.
The Turkish president, in fact, publicly endorsed Hamas in 2018 as “not a terrorist organization” but “a resistance movement.” The State Department chided Turkey in August 2020 for receiving a Hamas delegation that included Ismail Haniyeh and Saleh Arouri, who ordered the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in 2014. When the delegation arrived, an Israeli official claimed that Turkey had supplied a dozen Hamas members with passports. Washington has sanctioned both Haniyeh and Arouri.
Additionally, Israel warned in February 2021 that Ankara has allowed Palestinians to use Turkish soil to plot terrorist attacks against Israel on several occasions. In 2016, then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon went so far as to accuse Turkey of “hosting in Istanbul the terror command post of Hamas abroad.”
The recent conference raises major concerns about Turkey’s role in sheltering terrorists and in promoting boycotts against Israel. If the Erdogan government ever wants to thaw Turkey’s relations with Israel, it must stop supporting groups committed to destroying the Jewish state.
David May (@DavidSamuelMay) is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where Aykan Erdemir (@aykan_erdemir) is the senior director of the Turkey Program. Aykan is a former member of the Turkish parliament. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.