Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Israel “to never expand the scope of its attacks against civilians and to immediately cease its operations that amount to a genocide.” That warning took a new twist when the Turkish president later declared that Hamas is a liberation movement dedicated to the liberation of Palestine, calling the group “‘mujahideen’ waging a battle to protect its lands and people.”
Once a few days before his HAMAS outburst, Erdogan sent legislation to the parliament to ratify Swedish membership to NATO, receiving praise from US, Sweden and NATO. International Financial Investors are very unlikely to invest in a country which is heading for a crash course with Israel, and thereby with US regional policy. WHY did Erdogan lose his composure about the war in Middle East, when is capable economy czar Mehmet Simsek is touring the world to attract foreign investment?
According to Mustafa Gurbuz of Arab Center Turkey’s initial response to the Gaza crisis revealed three dynamics at play. First, despite his criticism, President Erdogan has been cautious in his tone, although the latest humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unprecedented in his tenure. His concerns over Turkey’s economic recovery and his hope to have a role as mediator in the conflict are main reasons behind his caution. Second, Ankara intends to play a visible role in hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas, in the process securing its relations with both sides with minimum harm to Turkish interests. Third and finally, depending on circumstances and developments, an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza can change current calculations in Erdogan’s overall strategy, which prompts him to restrain himself. Given that the popular support for Palestine is endemic to Turkish and Kurdish voters from right to left on the political spectrum, Erdoğan may seek to prefer populism over realpolitik. This is why a long Israeli war in Gaza is likely to cause more heightened tensions in Turkish-Israeli relations in the future.
Erdogan Is Strategically Sharpening His Rhetoric
Although the accusation of genocide is strong in Israeli-Turkish relations, Erdoğan’s stance was not harsh compared to his earlier defense of the Palestinian cause. In 2018, when Israel killed tens of protestors participating in the Great March of Return in Gaza, the Turkish President called Israel “a terror state” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a terrorist.” Although the current events are unprecedented in magnitude, Erdoğan has refrained from similar vitriolic outbursts in criticizing Israel this time around. Turkey even did not summon the Israeli Ambassador to express its official protest.
One of the main drivers behind Erdogan’s caution is Turkey’s economic recovery plan. The crisis erupted just as Erdogan was seeking to normalize relations with regional powers, including Israel. Following years of disputes, he had a meeting with Netanyahu during the recent UN General Assembly session in New York and extended an invitation to him to visit Ankara. Turkey’s restoration of relations with Israel was motivated by energy politics in the Eastern Mediterranean where Turkish economic interests had faced challenges.
Given that the popular support for Palestine is endemic to Turkish and Kurdish voters from right to left on the political spectrum, Erdoğan may seek to prefer populism over realpolitik.
Moreover, Erdogan aims to play the role of negotiator between Israel and Hamas, and thus does not want to irritate Israel at the moment. Learning from the Russia-Ukraine war and the grain corridor diplomacy in which he played a major role, Erdoğan wants to seize the opportunity to project an image of a global leader trying to resolve international crises. After Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, Ankara privately asked the organization’s leadership to leave Turkey as Erdogan does not appear to be portrayed in the global media as its protector. On the other hand, if Israel decides to invade Gaza and escalate the conflict, Erdoğan may feel compelled to change his mind because of the strong popular support for Palestine in the Turkish polity and society. Yet, his current strategy rests on the expectation that he will indeed play a negotiator role, which will provide him with better outcomes: i.e., a good deal of attention from Western powers as well as positive ratings in domestic politics.
Yet, this is a false hope. Egypt is not willing to let any other state to steal the show from Sisi in this regard; while Israel and even newly-befriended Gulf states have serious trust issues with Erdogan.
Will Erdoğan Return to Populism?
Erdogan continued his harping on Israel on Monday, when after the Cabinet meeting he insisted to have Israel prosecuted for war crimes.
Israel’s upcoming ground invasion, if it carried out over long months has the potential of changing Erdoğan’s current calculus. He is facing local elections in March 2024, when his dream of re-capturing Ankara and Istanbul may be frustrated by deteriorating economic conditions and the organic popularity of incumbents (both CHP) Mansur Yavas and Ekrem Imamoglu.
If there is one single issue around which all elements of the Turkish political spectrum cohere—seculars and Islamists, Kurdish parties and Turkish nationalists, centrists and radicals, far leftist and far rightist groups—it is that of the human rights of Palestinians and their right for self-determination. In as much as a recent poll by reliable surveying agency Metropoll found that 60% of participants wish to avoid involvement; this could rapidly change, if the death toll continues to soar. Additionally, while only 13% of participants support intervening in favor of HAMAS, these are most likely the core Islamist constituency in the country, these act as foot soldiers of Erdogan in the election campaign.
Therefore, Erdogan knows very well that the popular support will be with him if he chooses to increase tensions with Israel in the face of the potentially brutal Israeli invasion of Gaza and the widening of the conflict in the region.
Mass protests for Palestine in Turkish cities were accompanied by increasing criticism and pressure on the Erdoğan government. Furious protests erupted in several Turkish cities following the bombing of the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu criticized Erdogan’s weak reaction to the Gaza crisis—a sentiment that was also publicly shared by Turkish leftist parties. More importantly, Erdoğan’s main ally in the Parliament, Devlet Bahceli, gave 24 hours to Israel to stop its bombardments or otherwise called Turkey to be prepared to intervene in the conflict to “do whatever is required by its historical, humanitarian and religious responsibilities.”
Follow our English language YouTube videos @ REAL TURKEY: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKpFJB4GFiNkhmpVZQ_d9Rg
And content at Twitter: @AtillaEng
Facebook: Real Turkey Channel: https://www.facebook.com/realturkeychannel/