Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s arrival in Turkey—the first such visit in 15 years, a significant regional event now vastly overshadowed by the Russian war on Ukraine—puts a spotlight on Ankara’s relationship with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
Although Israeli officials have said that Israel did not place any conditions on Herzog’s visit, it is well known that Turkish support for Hamas deeply disturbs Jerusalem. It should also disturb Washington, which, like Israel, labels Hamas a terrorist group. And it’s a sure-fire bet that Turkey’s involvement with Hamas was on the agenda when Herzog met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan face-to-face. If it wants to contribute to Turkish-Israeli normalization—as it should—the United States should do its best to push Turkey to cut its ties to the terrorist group, or at least to condition its ties on Hamas’s renouncing violence and recognizing Israel.
Turkey’s indulgence of Hamas is at odds with Turkey’s own experience and formal policies. As a country that has had its own problems with terrorism, Turkey seemingly has every reason to be repulsed by Hamas’s version of “armed struggle” and its history of intentional targeting of civilians. Moreover, as a Western-allied nation that has had uninterrupted relations with Israel since 1949 and has consistently backed a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem, it should be easy for Turkey to call on Hamas to accept Israel in its post-1949 borders. Ankara would only be asking Hamas to adopt Ankara’s own approach. Erdoğan, even in his most vicious rhetorical salvos against Israel, has never denied Israel’s right to exist.
A key problem in Turkish-Israeli ties
In earlier years some analysts, Israeli and non-Israeli, felt that Turkey could have a salutary impact on Hamas by quietly nudging the group away from its hardline views. There is no evidence, however, that Turkey has ever taken up that task, nor has its relationship with Hamas ever been known to have been to Israel’s advantage. Turkey sought a role, along with Qatar, in brokering a cease-fire to the 2014 fighting between Israel and Hamas. It also reportedly sought to persuade Hamas to release Israeli captive Gilad Shalit and, more recently, to release two captive Israeli civilians and two dead Israeli soldiers, but none of those efforts seem to have borne fruit.
Quite the contrary. A key lesson of the past 14 years is that tension in Israeli-Turkish relations often begins because of Turkey’s identification with Hamas—whether during the Israel-Hamas wars of 2008-09, 2012, 2014 and 2021; the Gaza border clash of 2018; the presence of Hamas “military” chief Saleh al-Arouri in Turkey and his involvement in terrorism in the West Bank; or, most famously, the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which 10 Gaza-bound Turks were killed as they resisted Israeli efforts to board and redirect their vessel.
In the 11 years since Mavi Marmara, Israel and Turkey have maintained “normalization,” signified by ambassadorial-level relations, for only two years, from 2016 to 2018. That brief normalization ended when Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador following Israel’s lethal response to Hamas supporters rioting on the Gaza border in reaction to the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
To be clear, persuading Turkey to break ties with Hamas is not so much for the sake of the peace process, which has been moribund for years and has no near-term prospect of revival. Nor is it primarily for the sake of persuading Hamas to change its ways and renounce violence, which is as unlikely as ever, though much to be desired. It is ultimately about removing one of the most problematic issues in Turkish-Israeli relations and laying the groundwork for making those relations durable.
Impact on Turkey’s relations with the U.S., the West and Arab regimes
Getting Ankara to cut ties with Hamas would also benefit U.S.-Turkey relations, at a time when there is unhappiness in Washington regarding Ankara’s decision not to impose sanctions on Russia, as well as for other reasons. Although hardly the key to resolving all the problems bedeviling U.S.-Turkish ties, it would surely be greeted positively in Congress.
Renouncing Hamas could likewise help bolster Ankara’s standing more broadly in the West. All but two North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states (Norway and Turkey) designate Hamas a terrorist group. Yet, Turkey is the only one that has warm and frequent ties with the group; it is the only one that has never called on Hamas to reject violence and accept Israel’s permanence.
At a minimum, Israel and the United States should push Turkey to insist publicly that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel and endorse past agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—the trio of conditions once set down by the international community as the ticket for Hamas’s participation in the peace process with Israel. As a consistent advocate of a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, Turkey should find it natural to demand that Hamas do no less.
In pushing for this, however, Israel—and, by extension, the United States—will face the critical dilemmas of how much to trust any promises Erdoğan might make on this front. The Turkish strongman is famously mercurial, yet has been steadfast for more than a decade and a half in his support for Hamas. As part of his short-lived 2016 normalization with the Netanyahu government, Erdoğan undertook to make certain that Hamas did not use Turkish soil for operational planning; that pledge quickly went by the wayside.
Backing for Hamas, it should be noted, has tarnished Erdoğan’s image among many Arab regimes as well as in the United States, for it reinforces the perception that he is a Muslim Brotherhood ideologue. This has been the source of considerable distrust of Erdoğan by the likes of regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and, at least until recently, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In some parts of the Arab world, coziness with Hamas may boost Erdoğan’s popularity on the “Arab street,” but that, in turn, makes most Arab regimes only more wary of him.
Erdoğan’s motivation: Love and politics
Erdoğan has never directly addressed the question of why he supports an organization that advocates and practices violence against civilians and is ideologically opposed to a recognition of Israel that, in fact, is Turkey’s own policy. The prevailing perception is that it’s because of Erdoğan’s unstated but unswerving loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned Hamas. That is probably correct. Erdoğan’s—and his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP)—closeness to the Brotherhood has been evident in Turkey’s Arab-world diplomacy, particularly post-Arab Spring.
Regarding Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group, Erdoğan has said he “loves all our Palestinian brothers and sisters equally,” but his body language—as well as the frequency of Hamas leaders’ visits to and the sizable presence of Hamas operatives in Turkey—suggest that Hamas is his favorite sibling.
But Erdoğan’s closeness to Hamas may also reflect domestic politics. This is the case despite the fact that most evidence suggests that Hamas has never been broadly popular in Turkey, even though the Palestinian cause itself is widely supported. The last time the Hamas issue was polled appears to be in 2014, by Pew Research; that result showed Turks disapproving of Hamas, 80% to 8%, with the remainder on the fence or not answering.
Erdoğan’s support for Hamas may make domestic political sense in terms of Turkish Islamists’ “micro-politics,” however. Support for Hamas may help to cement AKP’s religious base, limiting drift to the tiny but more Islamist Felicity Party, whose unbridled opposition to Israel is among the key elements distinguishing it from the AKP. It is also possible that, over time, Erdoğan has succeeded in identifying Hamas as the face of the Palestinian cause in the Turkish public and thereby broadening its appeal and, indirectly, his own.
Outlook for renewed Turkish-Israeli normalization: the Hamas factor
Erdoğan has several reasons for pursuing good relations with Israel at this time—a desire to ease Turkey’s regional isolation, a hope for an unlikely pipeline to transport Israeli gas to Turkey, perhaps a quest to partner with Israel on high-tech projects, maybe a boost to already-thriving commercial trade relations, all in the interest of improving Erdoğan’s re-election prospects next year—but his main motivation is to impress Washington. In turn, he hopes improved ties with Israel will soften U.S. congressional attitudes toward Turkey, particularly arms sales and most immediately the 40 F-16s and 79 F-16 upgrade kits he’s requested.
Israel has made clear it wants a stable relationship with Turkey, although its leadership has also said it will do nothing to undermine its close relations with Turkish nemeses Greece and Cyprus, which almost certainly rules out the pipeline or direct military cooperation. The United States also wants stable Turkish-Israeli relations, as it forlornly seeks a foreign-affairs landscape that allows it to focus on China.
It should be noted that Israel is not without blame for poor messaging to Turkey regarding Hamas, particularly in the early years of the Turkish-Hamas relationship, which began with a visit to Ankara by senior Hamas official Khaled Mashal in February 2006. In 2011, for example, when Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, Jerusalem actually requested that Turkey accept 10 of the more dangerous ones, presumably because it believed Turkey could be trusted to keep an eye on them. Israel rarely made a public issue of Hamas’s presence in Turkey until 2014, when then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon began accusing Turkey of being Hamas’s “terror command post.” Before that, Erdoğan may well have gotten the impression that Israel wasn’t so concerned about his Hamas ties.
Although the United States has occasionally criticized Turkish support for Hamas, it has never made it a subject of persistent bilateral diplomacy with Ankara. It should.
Admittedly, this may not be the perfect time for Washington to make a plea that Turkey renounce its Hamas connection. The United States probably has more pressing, Ukraine-related requests to make of Turkey, and Turkey meanwhile views the United States itself as a terrorism supporter because of its cooperation with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-associated forces in Syria, viz., the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). Also, the United States can offer Turkey no incentive other than praise for aligning its position on Hamas with that of most of its allies and removing this stain from its reputation in Washington. Still, Turkey’s relationship with Hamas is unbecoming a NATO ally, and it deserves to be an issue on the U.S.-Turkish bilateral agenda.
Moreover, if Washington wants this latest bid for Turkish-Israeli normalization to prove more durable than the previous one, it should make clear that Ankara needs to end its relationship with Hamas, or at least publicly separate itself from Hamas’ vision and tactics. Should that happen, the Herzog visit could be the start of lasting normalization.
Alan Makovsky is a senior fellow for National Security and International Policy at American Progress. From 2001 to 2013, he served as a senior professional staff member on the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he covered the Middle East, Turkey, and other related issues.
This article was first published by The Jewish Institute for National Security of America.