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War on Gaza: Why Turkey hasn't severed all ties with Israel

Ankara has shied away from economic sanctions as it continues to push for a two-state solution and bides its time for Netanyahu's fall from power
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Istanbul on 7 January, 2024 (AFP)

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month likened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hitler over the killing of more than 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza, there was an uproar in Israel. 

“How are you different from Hitler? … Is there anything Netanyahu has done that is less than Hitler? No,” Erdogan said

Netanyahu subsequently slammed Erdogan, accusing him of conducting a genocide against the Kurds, and many in Washington circles have called him an antisemite. But ironically, many activists who actually agree with what Erdogan said on Israel have accused him of hypocrisy. 

These activists argue that Erdogan uses harsh rhetoric against Israel while maintaining trade ties. Some have noted that Turkey still facilitates the flow of Azerbaijani oil to cargo ships that carry it to Israeli ports. What can we make of such arguments? 

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There are maximalist expectations from Turkey when it comes to Israel. Many might say these expectations are created by Erdogan himself through his harsh rhetoric, but this is an unfair analysis. Erdogan often uses his megaphone to make a case, without implementing any sanctions. 

This last weekend marked 100 days since the 7 October Hamas attack. Ankara has cancelled a long-planned visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv for consultations, and fr0zen talks over energy cooperation that could involve a gas pipeline.

As I argued in a previous column, after the 7 October, Turkey took a balanced approach to the conflict, eyeing a possible mediation role. As it has become increasingly clear to Ankara that Netanyahu isn’t looking to make a deal - focusing instead on bombing Gaza to rubble - Erdogan’s rhetoric has changed. 

In a clear break from his Nato allies, he is now using his international platform to strongly condemn Israel. Compared with the shameful silence of the western world in the face of Israel’s brutal killing of civilians in Gaza, which many experts are calling a genocide, Erdogan’s criticism carries weight. 

Beyond rhetoric

Turkey’s diplomatic approach to the war, however, goes beyond mere rhetoric. Ankara’s calculations towards Israel are intertwined with two main issues: the two-state solution and Netanyahu’s ouster. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, since the early days of the war, has reiterated the need for a two-state solution, proposing a guarantorship model that could include Nato and non-Nato Arab allies to safeguard any deal. Turkey and other Arab and Islamic states created a delegation of foreign ministers, travelling the world to convince UN Security Council members and western nations to push for a ceasefire

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Those efforts have borne fruit. On 26 October, a total of 120 nations supported a Jordanian ceasefire resolution at the UN General Assembly, with 14 voting against and 45 abstentions. But after extensive diplomatic efforts by Erdogan, Fidan and the Arab-Islamic delegation among countries that didn’t back the resolution, those numbers changed significantly: A December vote saw 153 nations support a ceasefire, with 10 against and 23 abstentions.

This was a major achievement, but one that did not receive its due credit amid the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. 

Such carefully planned, nuanced diplomatic steps go beyond simplistic and short-sighted punitive actions

Ankara also been pushing to unify the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. Erdogan has said that Ankara is trying to bring the two parties together to present a united front ahead of an eventual debate on Palestinian statehood. Fatah has indicated it would be open to such discussions.

Such carefully planned, nuanced diplomatic steps go beyond simplistic and short-sighted punitive actions, which haven’t earned Ankara any influence among Israeli decision-makers in the past. 

Turkish officials, including Erdogan himself, have repeatedly said that Netanyahu bears the primary responsibility for the Gaza war, while his political life appears to be nearing its end. This is why Erdogan has been targeting Netanyahu directly, rather than lambasting all of Israeli society. He often mentions Israeli public opposition to Netanyahu’s rule, leaving room for manoeuvre after the prime minister leaves office.

At the same time, Turkey officially supports South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, and it recently rooted out more than two dozen suspected Israeli spies who were allegedly collecting information about Palestinian nationals on Turkish soil.

The path forward

On the issue of trade, Ankara doesn’t believe in collectively punishing all of Israeli society by cutting ties altogether - a move that would also negatively affect Palestinians in the occupied territories. Even after the 2010 Mavi Marmara massacre carried out by Israeli soldiers, Turkey did not end their bilateral trade relationship. 

In addition, many people appear to be misinformed on Turkish-Israeli trade relations. Some have argued on social media that Turkish exports to Israel increased by around 35 percent in December as compared with November. But this was only a seasonal boost, rather than an actual increase. 

Israel-Palestine war: Why Turkey's call for a ceasefire fell on deaf ears
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If you instead compare export data from December 2023 with December 2022, there has actually been a 30 percent reduction in Turkish goods and services sold to Israel, dropping from $611m to $431m. Turkey’s total trade with Israel between 7 October and 31 December dropped 45 percent when compared with the same period in 2022, from roughly $2.3bn to $1.2bn. 

Turkish officials also won’t nullify binding trade deals between private entities, such as arrangements concerning Azerbaijani exports through Turkish ports to Israel, or private Turkish companies carrying cargo destined for Israeli ports. There are always boycott calls against Israel or any other country with which Turkey is in crisis, but that doesn’t mean Ankara will act on these calls. 

Going forward, based on my conversations with Turkish officials, it is very clear to me that Ankara remains willing to be part of a peacekeeping force in Gaza under the auspices of a deal that aims for a two-state solution. It is also willing to contribute towards reconstruction projects under a legitimate Palestinian government. 

Cutting all ties with Israel wouldn’t serve that agenda. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

| Ragip Soylu
MEE’s Turkey Bureau Chief, based in Ankara. Previously, he was a correspondent for Turkish media outlets Daily Sabah and ATV from both Washington DC and London. He has also contributed work to various news organisations, including CNN and Foreign Policy.
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