Erdoǧan’s Calculations as the Israel-Gaza Conflict Escalates

On October 20, during Friday prayers at the historic Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, Ali Erbas, the head of Turkey’s state-run religious affairs directorate, stood before an emotional crowd of worshippers with a sword in his hand, and declared that “The world, bereft of mercy and a conscience, has been idly watching this genocide [in Gaza], while thousands of innocent people are dying.”  His statement echoed a warning by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan to Israel “to never expand the scope of its attacks against civilians and to immediately cease its operations that amount to a genocide.” That warning took a new twist when the Turkish president later declared that Hamas is a liberation movement dedicated to the liberation of Palestine, calling the group “‘mujahideen’ waging a battle to protect its lands and people.”

Turkey’s initial response to the Gaza crisis revealed three dynamics at play. First, despite his criticism, President Erdoǧan has been cautious in his tone, although the latest humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unprecedented in his tenure. His concerns over Turkey’s economic recovery and his hope to have a role as mediator in the conflict are main reasons behind his caution. Second, Ankara intends to play a visible role in hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas, in the process securing its relations with both sides with minimum harm to Turkish interests. Third and finally, depending on circumstances and developments, an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza can change current calculations in Erdoǧan’s overall strategy, which prompts him to restrain himself. Given that the popular support for Palestine is endemic to Turkish and Kurdish voters from right to left on the political spectrum, Erdoǧan may seek to prefer populism over realpolitik. This is why a long Israeli war in Gaza is likely to cause more heightened tensions in Turkish-Israeli relations in the future.

Erdoǧan Is Strategically Sharpening His Rhetoric

Although the accusation of genocide is strong in Israeli-Turkish relations, Erdoǧan’s stance was not harsh compared to his earlier defense of the Palestinian cause. In 2018, when Israel killed tens of protestors participating in the Great March of Return in Gaza, the Turkish President called Israel “a terror state” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a terrorist.” Although the current events are unprecedented in magnitude, Erdoǧan has refrained from similar vitriolic outbursts in criticizing Israel this time around. Turkey even did not summon the Israeli Ambassador to express its official protest.

One of the main drivers behind Erdoǧan’s caution is Turkey’s economic recovery plan. The crisis erupted just as Erdoǧan was seeking to normalize relations with regional powers, including Israel. Following years of disputes, he had a meeting with Netanyahu during the recent UN General Assembly session in New York and extended an invitation to him to visit Ankara. Turkey’s restoration of relations with Israel was motivated by energy politics in the Eastern Mediterranean where Turkish economic interests had faced challenges.

Given that the popular support for Palestine is endemic to Turkish and Kurdish voters from right to left on the political spectrum, Erdoǧan may seek to prefer populism over realpolitik.

Moreover, Erdoǧan aims to play the role of negotiator between Israel and Hamas, and thus does not want to irritate Israel at the moment. Learning from the Russia-Ukraine war and the grain corridor diplomacy in which he played a major role, Erdoǧan wants to seize the opportunity to project an image of a global leader trying to resolve international crises. After Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, Ankara privately asked the organization’s leadership to leave Turkey as Erdoǧan does not appear to be portrayed in the global media as its protector. On the other hand, if Israel decides to invade Gaza and escalate the conflict, Erdoǧan may feel compelled to change his mind because of the strong popular support for Palestine in the Turkish polity and society. Yet, his current strategy rests on the expectation that he will indeed play a negotiator role, which will provide him with better outcomes: i.e., a good deal of attention from Western powers as well as positive ratings in domestic politics.

Can Turkey Play a Mediator Role?

Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hakan Fidan, has been very active in regional diplomacy, expressing Turkey’s readiness “to play the role of a guarantor country.” The Erdoǧan government proposes a system of guarantors for a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Turkey being among those guaranteeing the Palestinian side. Given its good relationship with Hamas since 2006, Ankara positions itself as a rare regional power that can exert influence over the group. Turkey also stood out as the only country extending an invitation to Hamas to be in Ankara. Capitalizing on this unique relationship, the Erdoǧan government has leveraged itself as a pivotal player in resolving the current hostage crisis in Gaza and mediating the recent conflict.

The Erdoǧan government has leveraged itself as a pivotal player in resolving the current hostage crisis in Gaza and mediating the recent conflict.

Turkey’s appeal for a mediating role, however, has not been received well or accepted by Western leaders so far. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s initial declaration that he spoke with his Turkish counterpart to encourage Turkey’s “advocacy for a cease-fire and the release of all hostages held by Hamas” was later deleted on his social media account. Blinken’s later visit to regional powers—Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar—did not include Turkey, giving the message that the Biden Administration is not sympathetic with the idea of Turkish mediation. Understanding that Qatar already plays a critical role in the hostage crisis, Erdoǧan aims to play an active diplomatic role with Iran and Lebanon by convincing Hezbollah leaders to refrain from opening a new front in the conflict.

Another challenge for Ankara’s bid to play a prominent role is Egypt, which would not leave the mediation to other regional powers if and as soon as the cease-fire is established, and the political talks can emerge on realistic grounds. Thus far, the calls to Hamas to release hostages in exchange for various issues—opening the aid crossing at the Rafah border or resuming the supply of water and electricity to Gaza—delivered little because the armed group demands a complete halt to Israeli bombings before any negotiations could commence. If Israel chooses to deescalate the conflict, Tel Aviv will prefer working with the Egyptian instead of the Turkish government. In fact, this would be an opportunity that Cairo would not miss.

Will Erdoǧan Return to Populism?

Israel’s upcoming ground invasion has the potential of changing Erdoǧan’s current calculus. If there is one single issue around which all elements of the Turkish political spectrum cohere—seculars and Islamists, Kurdish parties and Turkish nationalists, centrists and radicals, far leftist and far rightist groups—it is that of the human rights of Palestinians and their right for self-determination. Therefore, Erdoǧan knows very well that the popular support will be with him if he chooses to increase tensions with Israel in the face of the potentially brutal Israeli invasion of Gaza and the widening of the conflict in the region.

Mass protests for Palestine in Turkish cities were accompanied by increasing criticism and pressure on the Erdoǧan government. Furious protests erupted in several Turkish cities following the bombing of the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu criticized Erdoǧan’s weak reaction to the Gaza crisis—a sentiment that was also publicly shared by Turkish leftist parties. More importantly, Erdoǧan’s main ally in the Parliament, Devlet Bahceli, gave 24 hours to Israel to stop its bombardments or otherwise called Turkey to be prepared to intervene in the conflict to “do whatever is required by its historical, humanitarian and religious responsibilities.”

To understand increasing popular support for Palestine in Turkey, it is important to analyze the historical context. During the Cold War, Turkey’s alliance with NATO necessitated that Ankara maintain a balanced stance, supporting neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis fully. This impartiality was notably pronounced within the nation’s conservative circles, while leftist factions demonstrated heightened awareness and sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Notably, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) garnered support from Turkish and Kurdish leftist students. The 1971 Turkish military takeover was, in part, triggered by the activities of Turkish leftist supporters of Palestinian Fatah. The military, being the custodian of Turkey’s secular state, forged informal yet strong connections with the Israeli military, rooted in personal relationships among top officers. This bond was bolstered in the 1980s, a period marked by the emergence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party with its training bases in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and the alliance between Kurdish leftists and the PLO.

The shift in support of Palestine did not commence with Erdoǧan’s Justice and Development Party’s ascent to power.

By the mid-1990s, Turkey’s relations with Palestine hit a low point as the Turkish military entered into significant defense contracts with Israel. In a twist of irony, these agreements were endorsed by the Islamist Welfare Party, to which Erdoǧan belonged at the time. The party’s leaders later contended that their decisions were swayed by influential Turkish generals.

The shift in support of Palestine did not commence with Erdoǧan’s Justice and Development Party’s ascent to power. Prior to that, Turkish leftist Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit had initiated efforts for mediation preceding the 2000 Camp David talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Ankara proposed a shared sovereignty over Jerusalem, drawing inspiration from the Ottoman model. While the Turkish government was vocal in its endorsement of Palestinian statehood, it also played a pivotal role in persuading PLO leader Yasser Arafat to delay the declaration of independence. The Second Intifada and the subsequent Israeli actions against civilians stirred discontent within Turkey, reflecting public sentiment that the nation was not doing enough for the Palestinians. Ecevit echoed this sentiment, making history as the first Turkish premiere to publicly accuse Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians.

During the Erdoǧan era, the Palestine question became engrained in Turkey’s social memory, especially following Israel’s 2010 raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla that killed nine Turks who were on board delivering humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Thus, Erdoǧan’s pivot to popular support for Palestine will be more likely, especially if he cannot see a potential negotiator role in the conflict—and especially if Israel continues to commit war crimes and atrocities against civilians.

Washington’s Blind Spot

The corridors of power in Washington have long been impervious to the echoing cries on the Palestine issue. A puzzling paradox resides in the US Capitol, where the vocal endorsement of human rights and international law somehow gets muffled and muted when it comes to the shores of the Gaza Strip. This selective muteness and disconcerting desensitization paint a grim picture of a superpower’s seemingly indifferent stance toward Israeli war crimes in Gaza. The current crisis has recalled the September 11, 2001, atmosphere in the Middle East in which anti-Americanism was fostered in an environment of skepticism and hostility due to the blatant violation of international norms by the United States and its allies. Escalation of the Gaza conflict will dilute the potency of American diplomacy and weaken American interests in the region.

Escalation of the Gaza conflict will dilute the potency of American diplomacy and weaken American interests in the region.

The intertwining of American and Israeli interests has long been a cornerstone of US foreign policy. However, as the geopolitical landscape evolves, this enmeshed perspective poses significant risks. Washington’s blindness offers opportunities to its rivals, Russia and China, in the Middle East. With a deepening crisis in Gaza, China has found an opportunity and deployed six warships to the region. An unwavering commitment to Israel’s positions regarding the Palestinians creates fissures that China is all too ready to exploit. China’s approach has been characterized by non-intervention and economic cooperation. Regimes in the Middle East, weary of decades of conflict and external interference, may find China’s stance appealing, a counter-narrative to the often-heavy-handed policies of the West.

As “the axis of evil” discourse is reincarnated in Washington, the Erdoǧan government will experience more pressure to cut ties with Hamas and take a tougher stance against Iran. As a NATO member, Turkey is likely to test the waters and watch the trajectory of the events to see if it can exert influence. Should the conflict widen, drawing in neighbors and igniting dormant but potent regional rivalries, Turkey’s military and diplomatic engagement would become an inevitability rather than a choice. As the smoke rises from the ruins in Gaza and as regional powers weigh their options and strategies, the shadow of Turkey looms large—as a potential peacemaker or a formidable new front in an expanded, multifaceted conflict.

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.