Erdogan’s double game: Praising Palestine, aiding Israel

While the Turkish president loudly praises the Palestinian resistance, he is quietly and ferociously pursuing pro-Israel economic and energy policies.

Once idolized for schooling then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on war crimes before famously storming off at the 2009 Davos Summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has once again struck out by ordering officials to boycott this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) over Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza.

Anyone who has paid attention to Erdogan’s statements since the onset of the war could be forgiven for thinking that Turkiye is at the forefront of nations opposing Israel and championing the Palestinian cause. Few around the world are as willing to adopt as sharp a rhetoric against Tel Aviv’s policies as the populist Turkish head of state is.

Erdogan designates Israel a ‘terror state’

However, even by Erdogan’s standards, his language took a sharp turn following Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on 7 October and the subsequent Israeli military assault on Gaza, when he dubbed Israel a “terror state.”

The Turkish president even lashed out at his NATO partners, saying: “While we curse the Israeli administration, we do not forget those who openly support these massacres and those who go out of their way to legitimize them,” in reference to the US and other western allies of Israel, before proclaiming: “We are faced with a genocide” in Gaza.

Initially, Erdogan cautioned for calm and emphasized the importance of preserving civilian lives on both sides, in a likely effort to mitigate Ankara’s well-established relations with Tel Aviv and the west. However, as shocking images of Israeli atrocities began circulating widely on social media and as public sentiment in Turkiye began shifting, Erdogan’s rhetoric evolved to reflect the same concerns.

Fueled by unexpected support from Turkiye’s secular opposition in favor of Palestinians, Erdogan abandoned his earlier, measured tone and embraced a more characteristic, high-ceilinged rhetoric. Demanding an end to the massacres committed by the occupation state, Erdogan not only led street demonstrations against Israel but also criticized its supporters.

Yet, true to Erdogan’s style, the lofty rhetoric has not translated into tangible action. Instead, it appears designed to manage Turkish public opinion and underscore Ankara’s potential role in any resolution of the conflict. Recognizing the likelihood of a domestic political shift in Israel that would end Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career, Erdogan has strategically focused his attacks on the Israeli prime minister – even comparing Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler – while maintaining normal trade relations with the Israeli government.

Blanking Bibi, but money talks

In a bold move on 3 November, while recalling the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Erdogan declared: “Netanyahu is no longer someone we can talk to. We have written him off.” Despite this diplomatic disavowal, trade between Turkiye and Israel continues to flourish, with Turkish exports to Israel spiking by 34.8 percent in December – from $319.5 million in November to $430.6 million in December – surpassing even the pre-conflict level of $408.3 million.

Crucially, Turkiye remains a key player in Israel’s oil supply chain, with approximately 4 percent coming from Azerbaijan via Turkiye. Despite calls from Iran to halt oil and food exports to Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians, Ankara persists in maintaining its strategic interests with Tel Aviv through realpolitik shrouded in diplomatic ambiguity.

Following his West Asia tour, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken disclosed that there was a shared goal among the various countries he visited, including Turkiye, for Israel to live in peace, a united West Bank and Gaza under Palestinian leadership, regional integration, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

“I also found across the board that the countries we visited, the leaders we spend time with, are prepared to make the necessary commitments, to make the hard decisions to advance all of these objectives, to advance this vision for the region.”

Factors affecting the Turkish position

Turkiye’s stance on the current war in occupied Palestine is shaped by a complex interplay of internal and external factors that have influenced its foreign policy for years. Key elements include the economic crisis since 2018, a surge in nationalism within Turkiye, the impact of global power dynamics (involving the US, China, and Russia) on the West Asian region, strained relations between Erdogan and the west, and Ankara’s pursuit of “strategic independence.”

Economically, Turkiye faced a serious crisis last year, marked by a 35 percent devaluation of the Turkish lira and an inflation rate of 62 percent. Depleting $26 billion in foreign currency reserves to support the lira and address a substantial current account deficit exacerbated the situation.

An opinion poll conducted in early November, after the start of the war on Gaza, showed that 70 percent of Turks believe that the economy is Turkiye’s biggest problem, followed by unemployment at 6.2 percent. The same poll also showed that 57.5 percent of respondents believe that the economic situation in Turkiye would worsen in 2024.

Interestingly, events in Gaza were absent from most Turkish opinion polls in favor of basic living issues. Ankara has a clear interest in this: maintaining economic ties with Israel directly impacts Erdogan’s position on the war.

Domestically, nationalist sentiment has gained momentum in the past few years, evident in recent election results where nationalists constituted a quarter of the voter turnout. Erdogan has responded to the trend – caused largely by his unsuccessful Syria foreign policy, which saw millions of Syrian refugees flood Turkiye’s borders – by amplifying the role of the Organization of Turkish States (OTS) and emphasizing a vision for the Turkish century rooted in nationalism rather than Islamism.

Be that as it may, the priority of Turkish nationalists is the state, not the nation. Therefore, they prefer not to antagonize Israel because of the prospect of possible cooperation with it, especially in the field of energy.

Erdogan’s restoration of relations with Israel aligns with his vision of Turkiye as a vital energy transit hub from West Asia to Europe, with proposed routes including: the EastMed pipeline linking Israel to Greece, then Europe; a 300 kilometer pipeline connecting occupied Palestinian gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean to a gas liquefaction facility in Cyprus; and an underwater pipeline connecting Turkiye to natural gas fields in occupied Palestine.

Rhetoric versus Realism

As the country approaches municipal elections in March, Erdogan aims to secure the recovery of his party’s political losses in Istanbul and Ankara, making it imperative to insulate the impact of the Gaza conflict from domestic concerns. A recent poll indicates minimal support for Hamas among Turks, with a majority preferring a neutral position.

On the international stage, the shift in US focus away from West Asia due to great power competition in the Asia Pacific has prompted allies, including Turkiye, to compromise some longstanding policies. Last year saw increased region-wide rapprochement with Syria, an Iranian–Saudi agreement, and Turkiye settling differences with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt.

Finally, tensions between Erdogan and the west, coupled with its impact on the Turkish economy, have led the Turkish president to modify some positions to appease western powers. Despite Erdogan’s pursuit of strategic independence, which seeks autonomy in foreign policy, the need for co-existence with, and concessions to the Atlanticists remains evident, as seen in Turkish policy toward the war in Gaza.

As the first Muslim state to recognize Israel in 1949, just a year after the founding of the occupation state, Turkiye has long positioned itself as an important ally of the west in the region.

While Erdogan’s rhetoric may superficially mimic that of the region’s Axis of Resistance, in practice, he is unlikely to significantly alter Turkiye’s geopolitical alignment on the Palestinian issue. His natural position continues to lie within the western axis, particularly when money is at stake.

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