Erdoğan, Gaza, and Turkey’s Regional Reconciliation

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s first statements following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli war on the Gaza Strip were notably measured, considering his propensity for fiery rhetoric against Israel and in support of the Palestinian cause. As news of the killing of civilians by both Israel and Hamas was beginning to emerge, Erdoğan underlined the sanctity of civilian life and called on both sides to exercise restraint. He also reportedly asked the Hamas leadership in Istanbul to leave the country, at least temporarily, as a gesture toward Israel, which has long pressed Turkey to stop hosting members of the organization. However, Turkey later denied that it asked Hamas officials to leave the country.

Erdoğan’s relatively balanced initial reaction may have been unusual because he typically sides with the Palestinians. But it was certainly not unexpected in light of Turkey’s concerted efforts since 2021 to recalibrate its Middle East policies by reconciling with its former rivals in the Middle East, including Israel. In August 2022, following more than a decade of acrimony set off by Israel’s May 2010 killing of ten Turks during a Turkish attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, Turkey and Israel announced the full restoration of diplomatic relations and the exchange of ambassadors. Then, this September, at the UN General Assembly, Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met face-to-face for the first time ever, and each leader announced an intention to visit the other’s country soon.

In this context of warming ties, therefore, many analysts expected Erdoğan to show restraint in his response to October 7 and Israel’s subsequent retaliation against Gaza. After a painful reconciliation process with Israel (as well as with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt) required Erdoğan to swallow bitter pills and make major concessions, he was not anticipated to jeopardize the progress made by lashing out against Israel at such a sensitive moment. But the Turkish leader soon did just that, shifting back to a more aggressive stance, and once again showing how he seeks to exploit the Palestine issue as a key political tool.

The Tone Begins to Change

Within two weeks of the conflict’s outbreak, Erdoğan became increasingly critical of Israel’s actions; on October 25, he provocatively announced that he did not consider Hamas a terrorist organization, calling its fighters “mujahideen.” He later called Israel a “terror state” that is “employing state terrorism.” On November 28, he told United National Secretary General Antonio Guterres that Israel should “be held accountable in international courts” for war crimes against Palestinians; the next day he called Netanyahu the “butcher of Gaza” who “is endangering the security of all Jews in the world.” In fact, Hamas is not recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey and Erdoğan has made similar statements in the past. However, the last time that Erdoğan said Hamas was not on Turkey’s terror list was in 2018, when Turkey’s hostilities with Israel and other regional rivals were at their peak.

The timing of Erdoğan’s rhetorical shift seemed like a calculated and planned escalation.

The timing of Erdoğan’s rhetorical shift seemed like a calculated and planned escalation. Two days before his remarks on Hamas, he had softened his opposition to Sweden’s joining NATO—a Western priority since the Ukraine war—after months of difficult back-and-forth deliberations with the United States and Europe—by finally signing an accession protocol and submitting it to parliament for ratification. Before that, there were expectations that he might continue to delay Turkey’s approval in order to extract concessions from the West. With his Sweden move—which has not been ratified by the Turkish Parliament—Erdoğan likely hoped to gain Western goodwill and with it, a protective shield that would give him room to maneuver to escalate tensions, at least rhetorically, with Israel.

What prompted Erdoğan to change his tone toward Israel and the Gaza war? What does this mean for the future of Turkey’s regional reconciliation policies? Will these changes have any impact on the evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Failed Mediation

Since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, international conflict mediation has been one of Turkey’s foreign policy priorities. Most recently, Ankara has successfully mediated between Russia and Ukraine. Turkey’s mediation efforts, although now seemingly suspended, yielded positive results in the form of prisoner exchanges and grain deals. Turkey’s ability to talk to both sides in the Ukraine war gave it a special status and allowed it to remain relatively neutral toward Russia. Turkey is the only NATO country that has not joined the sanctions against Russia. Being a mediator in this conflict has not only increased Erdoğan’s international visibility and prestige; it has also enhanced his image at home as a globally respected statesman, which is an important part of his domestic political persona.

Turkey’s expectation in the current Gaza war was to play a similar role between Israel and the Palestinians. As Turkey has excellent relations with Hamas and was in the process of reconciling with Israel, Turkey saw itself as an ideal mediator. In the short-term, Turkey hoped to broker the release of the hostages held by Hamas and to secure a temporary ceasefire. Ankara also proposed a long-term solution for Gaza based on a guarantor system and promoted itself as one of the guarantors. Such a solution would elevate Turkey to a special position, Ankara believed, and allow it to support Palestine without opposing Israel. The guarantor proposal, however, has been ignored by Israel and the United States. This was partly for reasons external to Turkey, as it seems that Israel does not yet have a confirmed post-war plan for Gaza.

But to Erdoğan’s disappointment, Turkey has also failed to play the role that he expected in short-term mediation efforts to free hostages and negotiate a ceasefire. Apparently, Turkey’s recent reconciliation with Israel has proved insufficient to overcome deep-seated bilateral trust issues, and the personal animosity between Erdoğan and Netanyahu did not help either. Perhaps more importantly, Turkey’s failure to play a meaningful mediation role also revealed that Turkey’s influence on Hamas has been greatly exaggerated.

In fact, Turkey had a high level of influence over Hamas during the first decade following its victory in the 2006 Palestinian election. Turkey provided diplomatic support to Hamas and sought to transform the organization into a recognized political actor and the representative of the Palestinian side in a two-state solution. To this end, Turkey deepened its relations with Hamas’s political wing. This helped change the organization’s relationship with the Syrian regime and, in 2012, it moved its headquarters to Doha and began to shift toward the Turkish-led regional camp during the Arab Spring, with Khaled Meshaal serving as Political Bureau chairman. However, with the defeat of Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and the failure of the Syrian uprising to defeat the Assad regime, Hamas eventually was forced to recalculate.

With the defeat of Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, Hamas was forced to recalculate.

The end of Meshaal’s term in 2017 and the rise of Hamas’s military wing—traditionally closer to Iran than its political wing—in the group’s 2017 internal elections, paved the way for Iran’s return and for the gradual decline of Turkey’s influence on Hamas. With Iran, for obvious reasons, unable to function as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, the two Arab countries Egypt and Qatar have been better positioned to lead behind-the-scenes talks in the current Gaza crisis.

Egypt has a geographic advantage in its shared border with Gaza, and has more stable relations with Israel than Turkey does. Qatar has emerged as the main mediator in many regional conflicts, including US-Taliban and US-Iran negotiations. Moreover, Qatar provides very significant funding directly to Hamas, giving it special leverage.

Another limitation to Turkey’s mediation role are some trust issues that may have arisen between the Hamas leadership and Erdoğan. After diminished Turkey’s backing for exiled members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in response to reconciliation demands from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, it is likely that Hamas members have begun to doubt the long-term reliability of their support from Turkey. And even before October 7, Turkish authorities had begun to limit Hamas’s room for maneuver inside the country in the context of Turkish-Israeli normalization.

Thus Erdoğan’s shift in rhetoric can be seen in part as a reaction to Turkey being overshadowed by Qatar and Egypt in the mediation process. Erdoğan is clearly frustrated that he has not been able to play the mediation role to which he has attached great importance. But this is not just the result of a psychological outburst of frustration. From Erdoğan’s point of view, Turkey’s exclusion from the mediation process undermines the whole logic of normalizing Ankara’s strained regional ties, a goal that he has been pursuing assiduously for the last two years.

The logic underlying Turkey’s reconciliation process was Erdoğan’s recognition that whatever popularity he has with the “Arab Street” had little value in the realm of interstate relations. Thus, even though Erdoğan became a somewhat popular leader in the Arab world for fiercely articulating political grievances and demands of Arabs, especially on Palestine, the geopolitical risks and economic costs of this policy were too high and yielded diminishing returns both domestically and internationally. To ameliorate that, Erdoğan initiated a reset of his Arab Spring antagonistic policies toward Israel and key pro-Western Arab regimes, with the expectation that the benefits of such reconciliation with regional states would outweigh the benefits that Turkey had derived from supporting popular demands in the Arab street.

The current Israel-Gaza conflict, however, has put these assumptions to the test. Despite all his efforts, Erdoğan has not been able to achieve the geopolitical gains that he achieved in the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Indeed, Turkey was initially marginalized in US diplomacy on the Gaza war, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken skipped Turkey during his first trip to the Middle East after the October 7 Hamas attack. Ever worried about domestic politics, such marginalization makes Erdoğan’s position more untenable and forces him to abandon the policy of balancing his support for the Palestinians with his wish to play an effective role in the Israel-Hamas crisis.

Impact of Domestic Politics

While Arab public opinion’s opposition to Israeli military attacks on Palestinian civilians has been a factor preventing some Arab regimes from pursuing or furthering relations with Israel, the role of public opinion on Palestine is perhaps even more acute in Turkey. This is not because the Palestinian issue carries more weight in Turkey than in Arab countries, but because Erdoğan has to win elections and therefore has to take into account the sensitivities of the population more than Arab autocrats do.

Although Turkey is no longer classified as a democracy by any index, many analysts consider it a competitive authoritarian regime, which means that elections still play a major role in Turkish politics. While Erdoğan has a remarkable track record of consistent electoral victories, he has increasingly relied on a slim majority to win. In the most recent presidential elections last May, he failed to secure victory in the first round and won in the second round with only 52 percent of the vote, and in the parliamentary elections held at the same time his party, the AKP, fell to an all-time low of 35 percent.

Moreover, there is a shift in Turkey’s party scene that threatens Erdoğan’s grip on the conservative vote for which multiple parties are now vying and for which the Palestinian issue is very important. For the last two decades, the AKP was the main actor representing the religious conservative vote. Today, there are four other parties in parliament that appeal to the same constituency. As soon as the Israeli attacks on Gaza began last month, these four parties began to raise the Palestinian issue and forced Erdoğan to take a clearer position, even if doing so could threaten his normalization process with Israel.

The AKP is being pushed by parties from the same part of the ideological spectrum, making it more politically costly to ignore the Palestinian issue.

Thus, the AKP is being pushed by parties from the same part of the ideological spectrum, making it more politically costly to ignore the Palestinian issue and more advantageous to defend Palestinian rights and raise the tone of criticism of Israel. By raising the banner of the Palestinian cause and accusing the West of hypocrisy, Erdoğan is capitalizing on a surge of pro-Palestinian and anti-Western sentiment in Turkey since Israel launched its latest war on Gaza

There is another domestic political dimension to Erdoğan’s rhetoric on Palestine, namely his desire to use the events since October 7 as a tool to maintain Turkey’s identity-based polarization. It is this polarization that has helped to keep Erdoğan in power since 2003, and he never misses an opportunity to inflame it. On the surface, Palestine would not seem to be a polarizing issue in Turkey because there is a great deal of sympathy across the political spectrum for the plight of the Palestinians, but Erdoğan still manages to exploit it to his advantage. For example, on October 28, the eve of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Turkish Republic, he spoke at a mass rally in support of Gaza, and the government kept the centenary celebrations the following day low-profile, citing the ongoing atrocities in Gaza. This appears to have been a calculated move to draw the reaction of the opposition. In this way Erdoğan tried to create a dichotomy between the opposition’s republicanism and supporting Gaza. Only the leaders of parties belonging to Erdoğan’s ruling People’s Alliance were invited to the rally, while opposition parties were excluded. If the purpose of the rally was to demonstrate the Turkish people’s support for Palestine, a larger gathering representing the entire political spectrum would have better served this purpose. Instead, Erdoğan chose to instrumentalize the rally and the Palestinian plight to maintain political polarization in Turkey.

High Rhetoric, Limited Action

Failed attempts at mediation and domestic political calculations explain Erdoğan’s increasingly harsh rhetoric on Israel and Gaza, but not his actions, which so far have been restrained. On previous occasions in 2008-2009 and 2018, both related to Israeli assaults on Gaza, Turkey lowered the level of diplomatic engagement with Israel. But this time around, despite heavier Israeli attacks and much higher civilian casualties among Palestinians, Turkey is being careful not to undermine the full diplomatic normalization underway since 2022. Israel recalled its diplomats on October 28 in response to Erdoğan’s remarks about Hamas not being a terrorist organization, but Turkey refrained from retaliating. A week later, Turkey recalled its ambassador for consultations, but Erdoğan said his country would maintain diplomatic relations with Israel even if he was done dealing with Netanyahu. He is most likely betting on Netanyahu’s quick removal from Israeli political life and as such, will continue to seek a seat for Turkey in post-war negotiations in a post-Netanyahu context.

Therefore, Erdoğan’s actions so far suggest that he intends to continue his general policy of recalibrating Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East. He has carefully distanced himself from criticism of the Arab regimes that normalized their relations with Israel through the 2020 Abraham Accords. This current approach contrasts with Erdoğan’s previous harsh statements against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which normalized relations with Israel in 2020, and shows that he is serious about continuing to improve Turkey’s ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with which he had fallen out in the previous decade. However, he will continue to criticize Israel because, in his assessment, his effort to improve ties with Israel has so far not delivered what Turkey expected. It has not bolstered Turkey’s profile in Washington, nor has it helped to raise Erdoğan’s profile as a regional mediator in the current Israel-Gaza war. In this context, Erdoğan prefers to raise the rights of Palestinians, score points with his voters, and maintain his high profile among Muslim publics. Moreover, Israeli brutality and Western protection of Israel somewhat limit the political cost of Erdoğan’s escalatory rhetoric, at least for other Arab regimes in the region that are normally uncomfortable with it.

But the current crisis and Erdoğan’s handling of it also shows his fundamental foreign policy shortcomings. Erdoğan is a master of tactical moves but lacks a clear strategic vision. Endless bargaining, brinkmanship, and transactionalism are also indicative of a lack of strategic calculation. Whether pursuing a policy of compromise or escalation, these policies are never pursued consistently. On the contrary, Erdoğan can shift rhetoric and change course based on short-term calculations or domestic political considerations. This approach not only undermines Turkey’s importance as a foreign policy actor, but also limits the effectiveness of Turkey’s interventions on behalf of the Palestinians.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: SPA