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Behind the scenes of the Israel-Turkey rift

“The Turks are filled with self-confidence and maybe going back to a period when they were more aggressive and trying to change the status quo in the region,” Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss told JNS.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo by Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo by Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock.

In an unprecedented decision, the Turkish Trade Ministry recently announced, “We have decided to stop all imports and exports from and to Israel until Israel agrees to a ceasefire and allows humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza freely.”

The announcement came after weeks of speeches by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which he used rhetoric largely seen as antisemitism, including claims that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government “are like Hitler.” Two weeks ago, Erdoğan went even farther, saying, “They are worse than Hitler.”

Ragip Soylu, Middle East Eye’s Turkey bureau chief, told JNS, “Erdoğan ordered a policy review and, considering the Israeli action in Gaza that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, the government decided to move on with this plan.”

“But I should also mention the fact that Erdoğan kept his criticism of Israel rather muted and criticized Hamas in the initial months due to the Oct. 7 attack, including kicking Hamas leaders on the day of the attack to disassociate [Turkey] from the attack,” he said. “This all went unappreciated by Israel. Neither Netanyahu nor other Israeli leaders have credited Erdoğan or his government and haven’t given Ankara a chance to mediate or become an intermediary. That created frustration and made Turkish policy regarding Israel meaningless. Now it has a meaning.”

Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS, “It’s not the classic Erdoğan, so we need to dig deeper [to understand] what made him take this step.”  

“Erdoğan, despite his rhetoric over the last 15 years, didn’t touch the trade and diplomatic ties with Israel,” she said. “He even said it’s off the table. The trade even increased between the countries in recent years. So, he is erasing the line between his political statements and the economic steps.”

Turkish-Israel relations have had their ups and downs in recent years—especially downs—beginning in 2008 during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. In March 2022, however, there was an attempt to turn the page when Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey for a summit with Erdoğan. The Turkish president even met with Netanyahu in Sept. 2023 at the U.N., though the two had occasionally publicly attacked one another. It is said that Netanyahu used to joke that he had a good day because Erdoğan only attacked him once.

Oct. 7 proved to be turning point, however. Lindenstrauss told JNS, “It seems there is no change in the Turkish leadership’s attitude towards Hamas.” She added that the break in relations “shows the Turks are filled with self-confidence, and maybe going back to 2019-2020, a period when they were more aggressive towards neighboring countries and trying to change the status quo in the region.”

Erdoğan likely has political motives as well. In April, Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party suffered a massive defeat in municipal elections. One of the parties that took votes from the AKP was the Islamist party YRP, which claimed Erdoğan is too soft to Israel and doesn’t do enough to help the Palestinians.

Soylu told JNS, “Turkey’s local elections, where some of the pious Turkish electorate switched parties to punish Erdoğan over his perceived weak Palestine policy pushed the government to reconsider its stance vis-a-vis Israel.”

“The electorate in exit polls complained about the continuation of commercial ties with Israel,” he said, “mainly focusing on the fact that the government blames Israel for a genocide but keep selling things like concrete, steel, etc. to Israel.” 

The U.S. is also a factor. Erdoğan was supposed to visit the White House on May 9 for the first time since President Joe Biden took office, but cancelled the visit.

Soylu told JNS, “Turkey and the U.S. are increasingly in agreement on their perception of the Israeli leadership. Blinken and [Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan] Fidan have a really good relationship and Washington agrees that Netanyahu crossed a line.”

“Yet Erdoğan apparently didn’t want to pose with Biden as he signed $20 billion in aid to Israel while humanitarian suffering is ongoing in Gaza,” he said. However, according to Soylu, “The bilateral channels are open and there is a continuous exchange of opinions.”

In the meantime, both Turkey and Israel have recalled their ambassadors. It appears that Turkish-Israeli relations are heading towards a place they haven’t in the past: A formal break in diplomatic relations.

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