27th Feb 2024


Erdoğan's foreign policy Israel-Hamas balancing act

  • Turkey is also a key Nato member, as well as freelance mediator between Russia and Ukraine (Photo: nato.int)
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On 7 October, the day Hamas attacked Israel as part of their 'Al-Aqsa Flood' operation, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a careful and balanced statement, urging both sides to show restraint. "We call on all parties to act with restraint and avoid impulsive steps that will escalate tensions," Erdoğan said.

During the first week of the conflict, Erdogan repeatedly offered mediation to end the conflict.

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Erdoğan's statements surprised many, as he is known for his fiery pro-Palestine speeches. Nevertheless, as the conflict intensified, Erdoğan returned to his usual rhetoric.

After the strike on Al-Ahli hospital, anti-Israel protests broke out in Turkey. On 25 October, Erdoğan claimed that Hamas was not a terrorist group but a liberation organisation. His controversial statements implied that Turkey's normalisation efforts were now suspended.

Turkey and Israel both recalled diplomats and ambassadors, escalating tensions between Erdoğan and Netanyahu.

On 28 October, Erdoğan held a large rally called the Great Palestine Rally at Istanbul Atatürk airport.

Since the airport was closed in 2019, the area has been used for festivals, concerts, and political rallies. The opposition criticised Erdoğan for holding a pro-Palestine rally one day before the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey's establishment, claiming he was trying to overshadow Republic Day with the rally.

Israel's ground offensive into Gaza and the humanitarian crisis intensified Turkey's criticism of the Israeli government.

Erdoğan even called Netanyahu "the Butcher of Gaza," branded Israel a "terrorist state," and accused Netanyahu of inciting anti-Semitism worldwide.

In 2005, three years after coming to power, Erdoğan visited Israel and met with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Visits to Israel by international leaders were rare at the time because of the second intifada that started in 2000. Turkish-Israeli relations were improving, and The New York Times even referred to Turkey as "Israel's most important friend in the Muslim world."

One of the factors that changed Israeli-Turkish relations was Hamas' victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Israel protested Hamas leader Khaled Mashal's visit to Turkey.

Throughout Erdoğan's tenure, Turkey has actively backed Hamas, supporting the organisation diplomatically, logistically, and financially.

The relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorated after the 2008 Gaza War. In January 2009, Erdoğan engaged in a heated debate with Israeli president Shimon Peres and famously stormed out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Erdoğan, feeling silenced, scolded the moderator with the repeated refrain of "One minute," a phrase that would later evolve into a pro-AKP slogan. Thus, his ardent supporters affectionately began referring to him as the "Conqueror of Davos."

Flotilla killings

Relations were downgraded in 2010 after the Gaza flotilla raid where nine Turkish activists were killed by the IDF. The Mavi Marmara ship was carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza, but since Gaza is under Israeli naval blockade, Israeli commandos raided the cargo ships. In 2013, Israel issued an apology for the incident.

In 2016, despite attempts at normalisation between the two countries, in 2018, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador amid the killings of Palestinians during the "Great March of Return" protests and the United States' recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

In 2022, Israeli president Isaac Herzog made a historic visit to Turkey.

The same year, the two countries re-established full relations and appointed ambassadors after four years. Erdoğan met with Yair Lapid, Israel's prime minister at the time in 2022. He also met with Israel's current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York in September 2023, just a few weeks before the breakout of the conflict.

Although the majority of the Turkish public wants Turkey to be neutral in the Israel-Hamas War, for Erdoğan to appease his voter base before the March 2024 local elections, he needs to make anti-Israel speeches.

But, at the same time, Israel is a crucial trade partner and an important market for Turkish steel, cars, jewellery, and clothing. Turkish exports to Israel were $7.03bn [€6.5bn] in 2022, according to the UN database on international trade.

Despite Erdoğan's constant criticism of Israel, he is also being accused of still conducting trade with Israel. Turkish journalist in exile Metin Cihan claimed that a ship belonging to Erdoğan's son Burak Erdoğan's company is making shipments to Israel. Israel is dependent on external sources for oil, and Cihan claims that tankers from Turkey were delivering oil to Israel, suggesting that trade with Israel is ongoing. Minister of trade Ömer Bolat stated that trade between Israel and Turkey has decreased by 50 percent since 7 October.

Various opposition parties, including the leftist Turkey Worker's Party (TİP) and Islamist Felicity Party (Saadet), criticised Turkey's trade with Israel. TİP leader Erkan Baş claimed that thermal clothes for the Israeli Army were being shipped from Turkish ports. Saadet leader Temel Karamollaoğlu said: "The government should not hold rallies; it should take action. While they (Americans) send their planes and ships, will you just send greetings?" the party also posted an image with the slogan: "Trade with Israel means betraying Palestine!"

The flexible nature of Erdoğan's foreign policy, driven by domestic political considerations, underscores the challenges of maintaining a delicate balance between using pro-Palestinian rhetoric and maintaining economic ties with Israel.

This balance raises questions about the consistency of Erdoğan's foreign policy and the strained history of Turkish-Israeli relations, and the recent rapprochement adds complexity to Turkey's stance.

Author bio

Volkan Isbasaran is a freelance writer on Turkish politics, global affairs, armed conflicts, ethnic/religious minorities, and history of the Caucasus, Balkans, and the Middle East. He was formerly a journalist for GercekNews.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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