In what has become an almost scripted scene since the days of the 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv in a response to the Israeli army’s killing of almost 60 Palestinians protesting at the Gaza border.
Within 24 hours, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also told the Israeli ambassador in Ankara and its consul general in Istanbul to leave, with Israel responding by expelling Turkey’s envoy at its Jerusalem consulate.
With the diplomatic relations between the two countries in free fall, PM Netanyahu took to Twitter to lash out at Erdogan, accusing him of supporting Hamas, and declaring that “he well understands terrorism and slaughter…” and that “he not preach morality.”
Erdogan struck the ball hard back into Netanyahu’s court, tweeting that Israel is an apartheid state and that Netanyahu “has the blood of Palestinians on his hands,” suggesting that he take a lesson in humanity by reading the Ten Commandments.
Later, in another tweet he defended Hamas, defining it as a resistance movement that “defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.”
Netanyahu answered back in Hebrew that Israel won’t be lectured to by the leader of a country that occupies Northern Cyprus, invades Syria and has the blood of “countless Kurds” on his hands.
The mud-slinging by Netanyahu and Erdogan is both aggressive and defensive, because both countries have a long list of human rights violations, and in this sense, Israel and Turkey are like two peas in a pod.
Perhaps the main difference is that when Israel commits crimes they are often caught on camera. With the dismal state of journalism and freedoms in Turkey, victims of Turkish state violence, often Kurdish civilians, do not make the headlines, with their stories buried within human rights organization reports.
Both states are guilty of applying extreme violence, in the past and present, and in that sense are quite similar, even if the conflicts they are dealing with are very different in nature.
However, it’s necessary to point out is that the two countries’ relations have never been based on each other’s upholding of civil and human rights.
Israel calling out Turkey on Kurdish rights and for being an occupying power essentially confirms its own state crimes.
And, while it would preposterous to claim Turkey does not care for Palestinian rights, under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has shown time and again that for relations to continue with Israel, it has to avoid violent outbursts, keeping it to a minimum. Turkey has never made ending the (violent) occupation as a condition for Turkish-Israeli relations.
With elections coming up in just over a month, there are accusations that Erdogan is exploiting Palestinian suffering to bolster his unsteady campaign.
But as Palestine is regarded by a not insubstantial proportion of Turks as practically a domestic issue, and a cause of genuine concern and solidarity, Erdogan’s retaliatory actions won’t go unnoticed, or unappreciated, by his constituency.
However, the idea his determined stance on Palestine will win him the election ignores the fact that Erdogan is, out of wider geopolitical considerations, not able, even if he wished, to engage in a full-throated campaign against Israel. That leads him open to charges of mere lip-service to the Palestinian cause; his performatively noisy actions this week on the diplomatic front are a form of damage control.
Erdogan not only faces strong objections within his own camp to Turkey’s significant economic ties with Israel, but also has to weather calls by opposition forces who accuse him at every given moment of hypocrisy: he curses Israel, removes ambassadors, but never cuts economic ties. Indeed, Tuesday, Erdogan’s AKP party struck down a call in parliament by the mostly Kurdish HDP to cancel all economic, military, and political agreements with Israel.
This need to actively demonstrate his identification with Palestinians while keeping ties with Israel viable is what motivates Erdogan to concrete steps in the public sphere, such as his announcement of a mass demonstration this Friday after prayers, and to declare days of national mourning, as he has also done in the past.
Such actions allow Erdogan and his party to assert a tight grip, at least rhetorically, over the issue of Palestine.
In a country where sympathy with the Palestinians is decades old and is strong enough to facilitate odd partnerships, such as between secular leftists and Islamists, Erdogan needs to keep a monopoly over the issue of Palestine. That allows him to maintain his balancing act between ongoing economic relations with Israel, and his status as being the sole leader in the Middle East (and arguably almost in the world) defending Palestinian rights.
This reality is exhibited by the fact that unlike Arab states who are still in a formal state of war with Israel, and those present Arab states cozying up to Israel, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey does not boycott Israel.
Rather it has done the exact opposite, such as entrenching its national airlines, Turkish Airlines, into Israeli tourism, last year breaking a record of carrying over a million passengers to and from Ben-Gurion airport.
It is on these airlines that not only Turkish Jews come back and forth, but also Turkish secular Muslims looking to party in Tel Aviv; they sit together with American Jewish tourists, mixing also with Turkish pro-Palestinian activists who do not buy into the BDS campaign, but rather fly into Tel Aviv in order to take up Erdogan’s own advice to visit the Holy City of Al-Quds.
In fact, it would seems safe to say that Turkey found, following the previous suspension of relations with Israel that being cut off from Palestinians came with a cost; true, rhetoric is nice, but they only can extend their soft power within the Palestinian camp, and the Middle East, by retaining (good) relations with Israel.
Despite the absence of a reliable crystal ball, it seems certain that the strong economic ties between Israel and Turkey will be able to weather this storm. However, on the political front, the tit-for-tat rhetoric shot back and forth from Ankara and Jerusalem could, if they are not careful, break the scripted model of downgrading diplomatic relations and removing ambassadors, retaining ties, and then working to overcome the differences.
Both Netanyahu and Erdogan have reason to feel empowered.
The Israeli economy is continuing to see stability and growth, its alliance with Saudi Arabia and Gulf States against Iran, gives it a new sense of strength, making Turkey relatively less important. Further, Netanyahu seems to have understood already during the 2016 reconciliation between the two countries, that Turkey now needs Israel; and not vice-versa.
As for Erdogan, even if he is clearly not interested in hurting mutual economic ties, he will have been fortified by his pride at the special place as loud advocate he holds among many Palestinians. World outrage at the Gaza death toll, that he is not alone in his quest against Israel, gives him a tailwind and may lead him to push too hard.
And confronting a surprisingly perilous position in the upcoming Turkish polls, there is always the chance that Erdogan will choose escalation as a sure source of political capital.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv