BACKGROUND: President Erdoğan is not the first leader of Turkey to support Palestinian nationalist movements whose violent deeds have led them to be officially labeled “terrorist” by the United States and other countries. During much of the 1970s, Turkey was a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), supporting its observer status at the United Nations and allowing it to open an “official” consulate in 1979. When the PLO declared a “Palestinian state” in 1988, Turkey was the only NATO country to recognize it. On the one hand, then as now, these actions allowed Turkish leaders to remain influential among their peers in the Middle East. This influence makes Turkey useful for allies in the US and Western Europe. On the other hand, the continuity with Turkey’s present support for Hamas only goes so far: the PLO—if not the state it claimed to represent—was recognized by regimes around the world. Moreover, by 1988, the PLO leadership had affirmed UN Resolution 242, thereby accepting Israel’s right to exist within its 1967 borders. Despite hints in that direction, Hamas has not gone so far. Nor does it have the same degree of international support.
The seventeen years since Hamas won a majority of seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections have largely overlapped with the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) political dominance in Turkey. The AKP government recognized Hamas as a legitimate representative of Palestinian voters and has continued to meet with its leaders. According to Israeli diplomats, Turkey has gone so far as to provide passports and residence to Hamas leaders. In recent years, Turkey has provided power stations and other facilities in Gaza. Yet these measures are hardly sufficient for activist groups among the AKP’s political base. The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms (İHH), a charity organization that critics allege has strong ties to Islamist movements including the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, sparked an international crisis in 2009 when it sent a flotilla to Gaza in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade. Nine İHH members were killed in fighting with a boarding party of Israeli commandos on the flagship Mavi Marmara. A tenth died later in the hospital. The fallout included tensions within the AKP coalition and a famous spat between Erdoğan and the Israeli president at the annual Davos Forum. Turkish-Israeli relations continued to deteriorate over the next decade, reaching a low-point in 2018, when Turkey recalled its ambassador (and ordered Israel’s to leave) in response to Israel’s killing of some 58 Palestinians protesting the establishment of a US embassy in Jerusalem, in contravention of international law.
During this decade of poor diplomatic relations with Israel, Erdoğan and the AKP’s support for Hamas seemed in keeping with their overall geopolitical ambitions. In Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, Turkey provided support for the Muslim Brotherhood—out of which Hamas emerged in the late 1980s—and similar political movements. As Turkish leaders pursued these alliances, they moved into a close strategic relationship with leaders in Qatar, which offers residences and office space to Hamas leaders and significant financial support to Gaza. The two countries stood in clear opposition to regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, which sought to tamp down the discontent displayed during the “Arab Spring” uprisings. In 2017, these countries participated in a blockade of Qatar as a reprisal for its support of radical groups. For several years, Turkey and Qatar resisted pressure from these rivals, but recently, both countries have sought to restore a semblance of normality to their relations with neighbors. This includes Israel. It was, in fact, in the context of this broad, regional effort to improve relations, that Hamas carried out its attacks. While denying the direct connection, a senior Hamas official explained that the attacks were intended to “open a door” to a political solution in situation where the doors available to Palestinians had been closed. Erdoğan’s return to antagonistic rhetoric and dismissal of the current Netanyahu government as a viable interlocutor give the impression that Hamas has achieved its aim so far as Turkey is concerned.
IMPLICATIONS: Aside from headline-grabbing rhetoric, however, Erdoğan’s options seem rather limited. His hardline stance against the Netanyahu government seems to have left Turkey marginalized in regional diplomacy efforts. Ceasefire agreements and hostage negotiations have been brokered by Qatar, and border openings involve Egypt. By contrast, suggestions by Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan for a “guarantor” system involving international forces stationed in Gaza have made little headway. The role of mediator seems beyond reach. At the same time, any real break with Israel could threaten Turkey’s larger diplomatic and economic aims in the region.
Israel is an important trade partner for Turkey, even in times of diplomatic tension. Turkish exports to Israel grew each of the four years after 2018, when ambassador-level diplomatic ties ended. By 2022, when ambassadors were reappointed, the Turkish Statistics Institute (TÜİK) reports that Israel was importing $7 billion dollars of Turkish goods, making it Turkey’s tenth largest export market. During these same years, Turkish Airlines (THY) remained one of Israel’s major airline operators, running dozens of flights to Israel per week. As part of their normalization process, the two countries came to an aviation agreement in 2022 by which Israel’s El Al would resume flights to cities like Istanbul and Antalya, perhaps reducing THY’s dominance but also signaling increased integration between the two economies. Given that this sort of commerce grew despite icy diplomatic relations, it is possible that current tensions will cause only a momentary decline in trade.
Collaboration on energy projects, however, has the potential to suffer since these projects remain in the early stages. Turkey has been engaged in ongoing talks with Israel over the possibility of building a pipeline from Israel’s offshore Leviathan field to facilities in Ceyhan, near Turkey’s southern coast, and from there on to Europe. The project would please European states hoping to reduce dependence on Russian exports. From Turkey’s perspective, it would also weaken an alliance that has been forming between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus in recent years. A pipeline project planned by these three states threatens to reduce Turkish influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and has led Turkey (along with the Libya’s Tripoli-based government) to assert expansive maritime claims.
The fact that the trio’s proposed “EastMed” pipeline would cost $6 billion (in comparison with $1.5 billion for Ceyhan alternative) has helped sustain Turkish-Israeli discussions. On October 6, just a day before Hamas launched its attacks, it was reported that Turkey’s minister of energy and natural resources, Alparslan Bayraktar, was planning to visit Israel. Asked about these plans a month later, however, Bayraktar responded that “discussing any project would be a disrespect …to our siblings there [in Gaza].” Crucially, however, he emphasized that the pause in talks was “in an atmosphere such as this,” implying that talks could resume following a ceasefire. Being shut out of regional energy infrastructure projects may be too risky to contemplate.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey’s limited options are even more clear in matters of defense and security. In their efforts to pursue “strategic autonomy,” Turkish policymakers are attempting to sustain a difficult balance between pleasing and frustrating NATO allies, whom they believe do not take the threat of Kurdish separatism seriously. Already, Turkey’s efforts to delay Swedish accession have led hawkish US policymakers to call for its expulsion from NATO. Given Israel’s influence in the United States, adding it to the list of voices lobbying against Turkey in Washington D.C. could create problems for Turkish diplomats.
On the other side of Turkey’s balancing act are governments in Iran and Russia, which pose threats to Turkey’s regional ambitions. In Syria, Iraq, and Azerbaijan, one or both of these governments is actively seeking to limit Turkey’s efforts to expand its influence. In these cases, Turkey and Israel have similar interests. Azerbaijan, for example, supplies Israeli with 40% of its oil (transported via pipeline to Ceyhan in Turkey and then shipped to Israel). For its part, Israel has provided Azerbaijan with an edge in weapons during recent wars over Nagorno-Karabagh. Similarly, Israel has long received oil from Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Government (KRG) in Iraq via Ceyhan. While these shipments have recently been halted due to legal disputes between Ankara, Erbil, and Baghdad, they reflect a larger basis for coordination. In March 2022, for example, Reuters reported Iranian ballistic missile strikes on Erbil as retaliation for efforts by Turkey to establish a pipeline to Europe in coordination with the KRG and Israel.
As the past decade has shown, Turkish-Israeli engagement does not require high-level, public meetings between officials. Business opportunities and areas of strategic alignment have been sufficient motivators. President Erdogan’s public defenses of Hamas and tolerance of anti-Israel protests have yet again soured relations and led Israel to recall its ambassador (just thirteen months after one was finally reappointed). Nonetheless, while this may represent a return to the tensions of the 2010s, those years were still a time of mutually beneficial relations.
Reuben Silverman is a researcher at the Institute for Turkish Studies, Stockholm University