Tufts university scholar Ozgur Ozkan brings a fresh approach to explaining Erdogan’s avid support for HAMAS in the Conversation article titled “Erdogan’s stance on Israel reflects desire to mix politics with realpolitik – and still remain a relevant regional player”. With the exception of the Ukraine War, where Erdogan put all of his diplomatic skills to work to walk the tightrope, his foreign policy record is abysmal. What does Erdogan want to achieve and is there any prospect for personal or national gain?
Erdogan’s reaction to the conflict reflects an attempt to strike a balance between two forces: domestic politics and realpolitik on the international stage.
Facing domestic constrains on his policy
Since the renewal of conflict in Gaza, Erdogan has faced pressure from various quarters in Turkey. His initial response drew extensive ire among the country’s Islamist circles, who have long shared deep sympathy for Hamas – leading members of whom Turkey has been offering a safe harbor. Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly a prime minister and a minister of foreign affairs under Erdogan, condemned the Turkish president for hesitance and called on him to align with his Islamist base. Leaders of other Islamist parties and Erdogan coalition partner Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, likewise called on the government for a stronger anti-Israeli positioning.
Also, his AK Party and MHP will contest municipal elections in March 2024, when it is crucial for Erdogan’s to recapture the major population centers AKP-MHP lost to CHP in 2019. The survival of Erdogan’s crony regime depends on patronage in these cities. The opposition is still shell-shocked from its May defeat and can’t seem to agree on an alliance for local elections but the main opposition party CHP has a fresh leader Mr. Ozgur Ozel who can shift the balance of odds against Erdogan.
Erdogan riding the wave of international frustration with Israel
Growing anti-Israeli sentiment in the international arena also encouraged Erdogan to take an openly pro-Hamas stance. On Oct. 26, 120 countries in the United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of a resolution calling for an “immediate, durable, and sustained humanitarian truce.” Meanwhile, protests on the streets of Western capitals have put further pressure on governments there to soften support for Israel. They have also facilitated Erdogan’s repositioning.
A joint Islamic-Arab summit in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, where leaders gathered to urge Israel to end hostilities in Gaza harshly condemned Israel for rising civilian deaths, demonstrating that while his rhetoric is unacceptable, his views are largely shared by Islamic nations.
Can’t afford to break up with Israel
Erdogan is aware that his criticism can’t go too far and risk a complete severing of ties with Tel Aviv. Israel is an important partner for Turkey. The two countries have seen growing trade relations, with Turkish exports to Israel doubling from 2017 to 2022. This includes extensive arms trade, with Israeli and Turkish arms producers seeing the highest growth in weapons sales worldwide in 2021.
Meanwhile, regional geopolitical dynamics have shifted to put Israel and Turkey in greater alignments. Recently, the Azerbaijan-Nagorno Karabakh conflict has drawn Ankara and Tel-Aviv closer – with both backing the Azerbaijani government with weapons.
Erdogan wants to repeat his success in mediating between Russia and Ukraine
“From the beginning of the crisis, Erdogan has sought to assert himself as a mediator. To that end, he has held talks with regional leaders in which he signaled an intention to act as a peacebroker. Senior Turkish officials have also revealed negotiation attempts over hostages being held in Gaza by Hamas.
This approach echoes Erdogan’s strategy in Ukraine, where he likewise put himself forward as a potential mediator.
In some ways, the challenges of balancing these domestic and regional concerns is what makes Erdogan uniquely suited as a potential mediator: He has maintained ties with Hamas while also recently deepening a relationship with Israel.
But for Erdogan to pull off the role of mediator, he will need to manage those links well”, observes Ozkan.
Success is not guaranteed
If Erdogan’s harsher rhetoric on Israel was aimed at alluring Hamas to a negotiation table, then there is a case to be made that he went too far. Calling Hamas a freedom-fighting group and accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza has harmed relations with Israel. It may be the case that Erdogan may have already squandered the opportunity for an arbitrator role.
Initial proposals for Turkish mediation over the crisis were reportedly turned down by Hamas.
Notable too is what Turkey hasn’t done. It hasn’t tried to stop shipments of Azeri oil through Turkey to Israel, and continues to allows the U.S. to use its Incirlik Air Base in Turkey despite increasing public pressure. Police had to disperse pro-Palestine crowds intending to storm the base on Nov. 5.
There are reasons to suggest that Erdogan’s strategy is working – despite the shift in tone, Ankara has kept its communication channels open with both Israel and Hamas throughout the crisis.
But balancing domestic support for Hamas and geopolitical reliance on Israel means walking a very fine line for Erdogan – and some of his most recent statements suggest he is beginning to teeter, concludes Ozkan.
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