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Gaza War Takes Its Toll on Erdogan

Tuesday 31 October 2023
Gaza War Takes Its Toll on Erdogan

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Turkey’s Erdogan Slams Tel Aviv’s “Unacceptable” Gaza Evacuation Ultimatum

Alwaght- With the start of the new round of conflict between the Israeli regime and the Palestinian resistance groups, the geopolitical game in West Asia once again emerged with surprise changes that put some actors in unpredictable and challenging positions. Meanwhile, Turkey is one of the regional actors that is extremely concerned about the situation and the way it should craft the best strategy to counter the situation at a low cost. 

With the continuation of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza that entered its fourth week, a fundamental change has occurred to Turkey’s approach to the Palestinian cause, ultimately triggering stronger-toned stance, though with limited practical steps. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in the past two decades has created a launching pad from the Palestinian conflict to improve his position among regional countries, this time is trying to draw attention to himself by surfing the waves caused by war. 

In this connection, in his Saturday remarks in a pro-Palestinian rally attended by hundreds of thousands of Turks in Istanbul, Erdogan strongly attacked the Israeli regime and described the attacks on Gaza as “barbaric.” He also declared his country’s intention to announce the Israeli regime as a war criminal on the world stage, adding: “We knew that Israel would be upset if we said that Hamas was not a terrorist organization, but we made our position clear.”

“We will announce to the whole world that Israel is committing war crimes and we will work hard to make it clear. What is happening in Gaza is not self-defense, but an open and scandalous massacre. They seek to collectively destroy the population of Gaza through hunger, thirst and destruction of infrastructure,” the Turkish leader added. 

He also said that the Israeli regime does not care the least about the life of people as it openly talks about its art of killing. 

“But it will pay a heavy price for its actions,” he warned. 

The Israeli reaction to Erdogan did not come long later, and Israeli foreign Minister Eli Cohen in an X post said that he recalled the Israeli diplomats from Turkey for a revision of relations with Ankara. Turkish media, however, said that Israeli diplomats had left Turkey earlier. 

Erdogan’s remarks and departure of the Israeli diplomats showed that the normalization between Ankara and Tel Aviv has returned to before 2022, triggering a growing tension. 

Record of diplomatic crisis 

This is not the first time that Ankara and Tel Aviv have been in tensions with each other over the Palestinian conflict. At the Davos Economic Summit in 2009, in response to the killing of the people of Gaza in the 22-day war, Erdogan severely criticized Shimon Peres, then Israeli president, and left the press conference in defense of the Palestinian people. In 2010, Turkey expelled Tel Aviv’s ambassador after Israeli commandos attacked a Turkish aid flotilla to Gaza led by Marmara ship, killing 10 Turkish citizens and leading to diplomatic hiatus between the two sides for several years. 

Their diplomatic relations continued at a low level for six years, and criminal cases against Israeli officials were filed in Turkish courts. Eventually, with the American mediation, Tel Aviv apologized for the incident and agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims and the injured. The two sides resumed diplomatic relations in 2016, but in 2018, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv when Israeli forces killed a number of Palestinians participating in protests in Gaza Strip. 

Again and as Erdogan embarked on a policy of de-escalation with the regional actors in 2022, Ankara and Tel Aviv normalized their relations and announced their readiness for improvement of ties at all levels. Before the current Gaza war, Turkey was to host the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shore up bilateral ties. 

Erdogan’s contradictory stances 

In general, repairing ties with the Israeli regime has made Erdogan act more conservatively than before. After all, he who won the presidential elections this year with shaky foundation due to various economic challenges does not want the support for the Palestinians negatively impact Turkish economic ties with Israel. 

In the first days of the Gaza war, Turkey tried to take a cautious stance towards the tensions between Hamas and the Israeli regime, and even criticized Hamas operation inside Israeli settlements on October 7 and Erdogan in a phone conversation with the Israeli President Isaac Herzog expressed condolences for the death of Israeli civilians. 

Actually, in parallel with the Arab governments’ soft positions regarding the Israeli massacring of the people of Gaza, Erdogan tried to remain neutral in this conflict to some extent and, contrary to his fiery positions in the past, he tried to play the role of a mediator similar to the one he had played in Ukraine war. 

However, with the intensification of the Israeli crimes in Gaza that drew waves of global condemnation, Ankara stepped up its support to Palestine and blasted Israeli slaughtering of civilians. It also affirmatively voted to the United Nations General Assembly resolution against the Israeli occupation and even severely censured the Western supportive stances to Israeli crimes in Gaza. 

Erdogan also defended the rights of the Palestinian nation and said that permanent peace in the region will not be established unless an independent Palestinian state whose legitimacy is based on UN resolutions and geographically integrated is established. 

But even with these positions, it is clear that Erdogan’s policy towards Palestine has changed, as in the past conflicts and tensions, it was Turkey that took punitive measures against Israel in support of the Palestinians and expelled the Israeli diplomats, but now Erdogan’s government does not seek to downgrade diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv and has not taken such steps yet. 

Many consider economy to be a determining factor in this approach. Erdogan, who needs economic relations with other actors in the region to improve Turkey’s embattled economy, is worried about the impact of the Palestinian conflict on the domestic economic conditions. According to Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed report, after Erdogan’s anti-Israeli position, Istanbul Stock Exchange dropped 7 percent, leading to closure of the index for the second time in recent weeks. With the Turkish national currency lira losing its value, investor fears are on the rise. 

Despite the political differences between Turkey and the Israeli regime over the Palestinian cause, these differences have not had a serious impact on other areas. According to Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed, despite the political differences, the economic relations between Turkey and Israel have made significant progress in the last 20 years, and the volume of trade, which was about $1.41 billion before Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, has increased to $8.91 billion in 2022. 

This trade volume shows that even in the past decade that the Turkish-Israeli relations were frayed, their economic ties experienced a growth regardless of their political tensions, and Erdogan seems to intend to improve these ties even further. 

Official statistics show that the differences between the two sides have not affected mutual trade relations, and the economic crisis that Turkey is grappling with has increased the necessity for cooperation with Israel in many fields, including energy. 

There is no doubt that Turkey has interests in relations with the Israeli regime, the most important of which is the transfer of Eastern Mediterranean gas, which Tel Aviv plans to transfer to Europe with the help of Egypt and Turkey, and this issue is also important for Turkey as it can earn from its transit role. 

Indeed, Erdogan’s past support for the Palestinian cause and his criticism of the regime’s treatment of the Palestinians had won him support among some Muslims in the region, but now Erdogan is on the edge since the public opinion compare his policy to the infamous policy of Arab states who sell the Palestinian cause for profits. 

Palestine’s place in Erdogan’s new foreign policy

Dreaming of reviving the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, Erdogan during his two-decade rule of Turkey has tried to bring regional countries that once were part of the Ottoman Empire to Ankara’s side to complete his project. Palestine is part of this project and Erdogan’s support to the Palestinians falls under a policy pursuing this project. 

According to Al-Mayadeen news network, Erdogan government’s policies regarding Palestine are more or less still being pursued within the framework of the same general doctrine. Accordingly, a strategic diplomacy is being pursued by the Turkish officials in support of the Palestinians, which includes initiatives to increase the number of countries that recognize Palestine as an independent state and East Al-Quds (Jerusalem) as its capital.

Also, protecting the status of the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque and strengthening the economy of the Palestinians with the help of financial funds, especially the Islamic Development Bank, are other measures that Ankara’s officials are trying to implement. Even in his election campaign in the past period, Erdogan called the support of Palestine an important part of his foreign policy. He knew that the Islamic layer of the Turkish society supports the Palestinian nation and it played an important role in his victory in the elections. 

At present, although Erdogan is seeking to secure political and economic interests in his stances concerning the Palestinian conflict, the current situation in the occupied territories and the wide-ranging conflict between the Israeli regime and Hamas have put Turkey at a difficult dilemma between the two. Turkey is well aware of the fact that if it wants to have Israel by its side, it must give up its former support to Hamas, just as in the process of normalization with Tel Aviv it had to close Hamas office in Istanbul and expel the officials of this resistance movement from Turkey. But now the situation is different and the Israeli hardliners will not accept anything other than labeling Hamas a terrorist group, and this is what Erdogan must decide on. 

One of the factors that accelerated the process of Israeli-Turkish normalization was the supportive positions of the Israelis for Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war, which changed Erdogan’s negative opinion towards the Israelis, and in order to justify his Karabakh policy to the Turkish public, he relied on Tel Aviv’s support for Baku and on the nationalist policies to bring the society’s nationalists on his side in this case. But now that Karabakh crisis is resolved and the Palestinian conflict has intensified, using the nationalism tactic to gain public opinion support is of no avail, especially when many Turkish people want the government to cut off ties with Tel Aviv. 

Also Erdogan’s political opponents in recent days have taken a strong stance against him for his silence to the Israeli crimes in Gaza and called for Ankara’s serious reaction. The opposition have criticized Erdogan’s stance on Israel’s atrocities in Gaza and accused him of neglecting his religious and humanitarian duty towards the Palestinians. Former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu used the Gaza card in his recent remarks against Erdogan, saying that he misses Erdogan of Davos, referring to president’s clash with Israeli president in the middle of a press meeting in Davos Economic Forum in 2009. 

So, to mitigate the opposition pressures, Erdogan has to highlight his pro-Palestinian policy, and this automatically leads to escalated tensions with the Israelis. Since the wave of global opposition to the Israeli crimes in Gaza is expanding and Tel Aviv is isolated on the international stage, Ankara will continue to provide political support to Palestine as long as its positions do not harm the economic relations with Tel Aviv. 

Prospects of relations 

The chart of the Turkish-Israeli relations has seen many highs and downs in recent years, but the two have saved their economic cooperation. Gaza war has only laid bare once again the political gap between the two and that there is a long way to them to completely bridge their gaps. Odds are that with rise of tensions between the two sides as a result of the Israeli ground offensive, the gap will grow as wide as before. 

Since the Israelis deem enemy any country supporting Hamas, the tough stances of the Turkish officials against the Israeli war on Gaza can once again harm the diplomatic relations, and according to some experts, this issue will impact economic relations, especially Turkish tourism and investment sectors. 

Some analysts suggest that given the Turkish public solidarity with Gaza, Erdogan intends to satisfy his people by voicing support to Gaza while at the same time saving relations with Tel Aviv. But this exploitative approach to the Palestinian cause no longer wins popularity for Erdogan at home and abroad. 

From another aspect, Erdogan has lost the initiative of the Palestinian case and even fell out of favor with Hamas, and now others like Qatar and Egypt have become important actors in the Palestinian case. The mediation of the Qataris for release of Israeli prisoners in recent days showed that Turkey is no party to the process and Hamas even rejected Ankara’s mediation offer. 


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Erdogan Turkey Gaza War Israel Crimes

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