“Shame on you!” tweeted Ibrahim Kalin, advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on May 14. He condemned killing of Palestinians in Gaza and contrasted it with the “singing and celebrating” as the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem. “The world shares this shame in its silence.”
Hours later, the Israeli ambassador to Turkey was notified that Ankara intended to expel him. Turkey also lowered its flags to half staff to commemorate those killed in Gaza and two Turkish political parties sought to annul agreements with Israel and impose economic sanctions. It is the latest spat in a long, historic, and tumultuous relationship.
Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel in 1949 and the states enjoyed relatively warm relations for many decades. Turkey and Israel shared many common interests in the region as allies of the West and modern, relatively secular countries in a region dominated by Arab nationalism and rising religious extremism.
The 1990s and early 2000s were the peak of the relationship with military and economic relations growing. A memorial for fallen Ottoman Turkish soldiers was built in Beersheba and a statue of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, unveiled. A massive delegation of Turkish businesspeople visited Israel in 2007. Kurdish protesters even attacked the Israeli embassy in Berlin in 1999, accusing Israel of playing a role in the Turkish capture of Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Initially under Erdogan and the rise of the Justice and Development Party in 2002, relations continued to be warm. Erdogan visited Israel, condemned antisemitism and sought to play a role in an Israel-Syrian peace agreement. Turkey also sought to help with Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives, and both Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas visited Turkey.
Erdogan told The Washington Post in 2009 that Israel should engage Hamas. “Hamas is not an arm of Iran. Hamas entered the [Palestinian] elections as a political party. If the whole world had given them the chance of becoming a political player, maybe they would not be in a situation like this after the elections that they won [in January 2006].” Ankara was seeking to broker a Syria-Israel and was disgusted when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Ankara and then returned to Israel and launched Operation Cast Lead against Hamas.
In late January 2009, the Turkish president walked off stage at the World Economic Forum at Davos after comments by Peres. The 2009 conflict destroyed confidence in Israel among the leadership of the AKP and relations have never recovered. In May 2010 a flotilla, led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara passenger ship and manned by members of the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Aid (IHH) sought to break the blockade of Gaza. A raid by Israeli commandos led to the deaths of ten Turkish citizens in a melee on deck. Turkey withdrew its ambassador and accused Israel of a “bloody massacre” aboard the ship. Joint military exercises were cancelled.
Then in 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim patched up some relations, with Israel agreeing to pay $20 million to Turkey for the victims of the Marmara. Economic relations were a backdrop to the 2016 deal. Israel was discussing exporting natural gas to Turkey and in 2017, Yuval Steinitz was in discussions with Turkey’s energy minister about a pipeline deal. Israel was also reported to be buying oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The Financial Times wrote in 2015 that this included oil shipped from the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.
The backdrop to the recent anger at Israel by Ankara is not just the protests in Gaza. In the lead-up to the Kurdish referendum in Iraq in September, Turkish politicians objected to the flying of Israeli flags by Kurds in northern Iraq. In December, when US President Donald Trump announced that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Turkey hosted a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to condemn the move. Erdogan condemned Israel as a “terror state.”
When the Gaza protests broke out on March 30 and more than a dozen Palestinians were killed, the Turkish president called it a “massacre.” Netanyahu responded with harsh criticism of Turkey’s actions in Syria, where Turkey was fighting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, a group Ankara views as terrorists. “Anyone who occupies northern Cyprus, invades the Kurdish strip and slaughters citizens in Afrin should not lecture us,” Netanyahu said.
It came as no surprise then when Erdogan tweeted on May 15 that Hamas “is not a terrorist organization,” writing that it was a “resistance movement that defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.” Perhaps more surprising was that the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Republican People’s Party sought to annul the 2016 agreement with Israel and the CHP sought to have Turkey’s ambassador permanently withdrawn. The AKP opposed cancelling the agreement but Prime Minister Yildirim said Muslim countries should review their ties with Israel. Commentator Serkan Demirtas, writing at Hurriyet, noted that ties could potentially be ruined.
There are several layers to the current war of words between Ankara and Jerusalem. First is the embassy and Jerusalem issue. Turkey supports the Palestinians demand for Jerusalem as their capital. Turkey also uses the OIC to garner Islamic support regarding the Jerusalem issue. And Ankara is outraged by the deaths in Gaza.
Turkey’s AKP has long been supportive of Hamas, arguing that it is a legitimate political organization. But this support has put Turkey at odds with other countries because Turkey was also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood contesting elections in Egypt. This is part of a wider struggle where Turkey and Qatar embraced the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 2000s. But other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, have come to oppose the Brotherhood and they are critical of Hamas.
Turkey’s problems with Jerusalem, therefore, are threefold: Religious anger over Jerusalem, empathy with Palestinians in general, support for Mahmud Abbas politically, support for Hamas as well as support for humanitarian aid to Gaza and regional anger that Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo appear to be closer politically to Israel. This is ironic since Turkey has relations with Israel while Riyadh and Abu Dhabi do not.
But everything is not as black and white as it seems. Qatar has been supporting Gaza financially via Israel and views Israel as a key to its continued ability to work in Gaza. US Presidential envoy Jason Greenblatt was in Qatar on Wednesday meeting Qatar foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and discussing Gaza.
The AKP’s decision to oppose cancelling the 2016 agreement is tied to the desire by Ankara, which is close to Doha, to continue to play a role in aiding the Palestinians rather than ruining relations with Israel, since all these relationships are intertwined. That is dependent on Jerusalem’s decisions as well.
Anger at Turkey’s decision to expel the Israeli ambassador and rhetoric from Turkey will encourage Israel to speak out about the Kurds and other issues. With Turkey planning an OIC meeting and rallies at the end of the week, and Turkish electioneering taking place, relations could sour more.