Erdoğan Is No Friend of Palestine

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fiery statements condemning Israel may seem bold, but Turkey's trade relations with Israel tell a different story. In the end, Erdoğan’s bluster is a cynical attempt to shore up eroding support among his base.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wears a keffiyeh at a 2018 rally in Istanbul. (Photo by Ozan Kose / AFP via Getty Images)

Amid the ongoing slaughter in Gaza, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stands out among world leaders for his bold remarks, including labeling Israel a terrorist state and demanding that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu be tried as a war criminal. For Palestinians, a Turkish shift away from Israel would be a significant development, considering Turkey’s stature as one of the largest countries in the Middle East. However, this isn’t the first time Erdoğan has employed such forceful language.

In 2010, when eight Turkish nationals were killed on a ship bringing aid to Gaza, Erdoğan denounced it as state terrorism, cut diplomatic relations with Israel, and called for Israel to be tried by the International Criminal Court. Despite these strong stances, trade between the two countries accelerated. After a few years, all was forgiven, with Israel and Turkey exploring oil and gas together in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Erdoğan is the quintessential demagogue — he issues challenging statements to the established order while maintaining the status quo. Erdoğan’s denouncements of Israel tend to coincide with periods of heightened violence. But once public outrage declines, it’s back to business as usual.

A Tense Friendship

The tension between Israel and Turkey dates back to Israeli independence in 1948. Given the pro-Palestinian sentiment amongst most Turks, and Turkey’s desire to maintain relations with states and groups opposing Zionism, Turkey often issues statements against Israel. However, the prevailing influence of the West in the region has consistently fostered a close partnership between Israel and Turkey, despite Turkey’s rhetoric.

After initially opposing the United Nations’ 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israeli independence in 1949. As the Cold War unfolded, Turkey, aligning itself with the West, joined NATO. In the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, despite condemning Israel, Turkey stood out as one of the only Muslim-majority states that did not sever diplomatic ties. While many Middle Eastern broke off relations and barred Israelis from entry, Turkish-Israeli trade and tourism flourished. However, Turkey often kept these relations discreet to avoid regional and domestic criticism.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western influence in the Middle East grew, bringing the once-covert relationship between Turkey and Israel into the public eye. During the 1990s, the trade in weapons between the two nations increased, and they engaged in joint military exercises.

When Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the election in 2002 and Erdoğan became prime minister the following year, it seemed as if things would change. With the AKP challenging Turkey’s long-established secularism, some believed that a shift toward a more Islamic politics would result in greater opposition to Israel.

But just as conservatives in America claim to uphold Christianity while betraying its principles, so too did Erdoğan’s claim to bring Islam into politics change little. Initially, Erdoğan refused to meet with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. He denounced Israel’s response to the Second Intifada as state terrorism and compared the plight of Palestinians to the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. Yet despite this rhetoric, trade in military equipment and joint military exercises with Israel continued. Throughout the five years of the Second Intifada, Turkish exports to Israel more than doubled. Once the Second Intifada ended, Erdogan promptly led a delegation of businessmen to meet Prime Minister Sharon.

Two-Faced Diplomacy

While improving relations with Israel, Erdoğan was also repairing ties with Syria. Former enemies, Turkey and Syria signed a free trade agreement in 2004. Erdoğan hoped that a rapprochement with Israel could position Turkey as a mediator between rivals Israel and Syria, thereby establishing Turkey as a leader in the Middle East.

These hopes dimmed when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006 and laid siege to Gaza in 2008 and 2009. Once again, cozy relations with Israel were put on hold, accompanied by harsh rhetoric. Yet what seemed to offend Erdoğan most was not the death and destruction, but the harm to Turkey’s diplomatic image. In the aftermath, Erdoğan stated that “Israel’s bombardment of Gaza shows disrespect to the Turkish Republic. We were planning to schedule peace talks between Syria and Israel.” Despite this, trade between Turkey and Israel nevertheless continued to flourish.

If any year held the potential for change, it was 2010. In May of that year, the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, comprising six civilian ships carrying humanitarian aid, sought to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Before they could reach their destination, members of the Israeli navy stormed the ships, killing ten people. Eight of the victims were Turkish nationals and one was an American of Turkish descent.

Erdoğan seemed furious. “This bloody massacre by Israel on ships that were taking humanitarian aid to Gaza deserves every kind of curse” he stated. He insisted that Israel had to “absolutely be punished by all means.”  For the first time, Turkey expelled its Israeli ambassadors, prompting a reciprocal response from Israel.

It appeared that Turkey might align with other Middle Eastern countries in isolating Israel. However, in the year following the flotilla raid, Israeli exports to Turkey grew by 50 percent. As Erdoğan’s rhetoric escalated, so did trade. In 2013, Erdoğan denounced Zionism as a crime against humanity. That year marked the pinnacle of bilateral trade up to that point. Within a month of his statement, Israel and Turkey initiated the process of normalizing relations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for Israel’s killing of Turkish nationals on the flotilla. From there, diplomatic relations continued to improve.

In 2016 an agreement was reached to compensate the affected families and restore relations. In a seeming victory for Palestine, the agreement also allowed Turkey to provide humanitarian aid and infrastructure investment in Gaza and the West Bank. However, this paled in comparison to the billions in bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel. In 2016 Turkey ranked as Israel’s ninth-largest export destination.

The disputes persisted. In 2018, the Turkish foreign minister advocated taking Israel to the International Criminal Court and Erdoğan called for rallies in Istanbul in solidarity with Palestine. But as opposition leader Muharrem İnce observed, these rallies did not change anything: “Have you boycotted Israeli goods? No. Have you scrapped deals with Israel? No.”

In the following years, Turkey condemned the United States for moving its embassy to Jerusalem and Israel condemned Turkey for invading northern Syria. Like a couple that cannot break up, the two countries fought verbally while their codependence grew. Turkey became a source for raw materials, such as steel, which accounted for a third of Israel’s imports. While Erdoğan was condemning Zionism, Turkey was providing a key material for Israeli weapons and settlements.

Although formal military cooperation ended in 2008, Turkey continued to benefit from Israeli military exports. In 2020, Turkish ally Azerbaijan began military operations to ethnically cleanse the Armenian-majority region of Artsakh. While Erdoğan blamed Israel for destabilizing the Middle East, Turkey let Israel use its airspace to deliver weapons for the slaughter of Armenians.

In 2022, amnesia seemed to take hold. Erdoğan appeared to have forgotten his past statements branding Zionism as a crime against humanity and advocating for Israel to be tried in the International Criminal Court. The leaders of Israel and Turkey met in September 2022 for the first time in fourteen years, marking a resumption of defense cooperation, including the sharing of intelligence. The exact reasons for this rapprochement are up for debate, but a common interest in exploiting oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean might have been a driving force. For Erdoğan, it appears that financial interests take precedence over principles.

The More Things Change . . .

Erdoğan’s policy toward Israel remains unchanged. When Hamas led an attack on October 7, Erdoğan’s first response was not to caution Israel to act proportionally, but to try to expel Hamas leadership from Turkey. When opposition emerged against Israel’s siege of Gaza, Erdoğan once again condemned Israel, branding it a terrorist state and calling for an investigation into war crimes. This led to the recall of ambassadors by both Israel and Turkey.

While the ongoing crisis in Gaza has halted the rapprochement with Israel, it has not ended economic relations. Trade continues, and this time it seems Erdoğan is personally benefiting. A recent investigation accuses Erdoğan’s son, Ahmet Burak Erdoğan, of owning vessels involved in shipping to Israel. Others who are close to the AKP, such as the son of former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, also benefit from this trade.

However, contrary to media portrayals, the Turkey-Israel relationship isn’t necessarily over. “Turkey-Israel ties in tatters over Erdogan address” reads a headline from France 24. “Gaza war pushes tumultuous Israel-Turkey ties into ‘deep freezer’” reads another headline from Al Jazeera.

But as history has shown us, Erdoğan has no interest in changing the status quo. While formal diplomatic relations have their ups and downs, trade between the countries continues to grow. Instead of being a staunch advocate for Palestine, Erdoğan has contributed to Israel’s prosperity by providing the goods necessary for Zionist occupation to continue. Just as before, when Israel’s bombardment of Gaza concludes, Turkey may resume efforts to mend relations.