Will Turkey-Israel ties reach breaking point amid Gaza war?

Illustration - Analysis - Turkey/Israel
7 min read
14 November, 2023

Out of all the NATO members, Turkey has taken, by far, the strongest stance against Israel amid the ongoing war on Gaza.

There has been mounting pressure on officials in Ankara, both from within Turkey and throughout the wider Islamic world, to stand in defence of Palestinians in ways that could very negatively impact the future of Turkish-Israeli relations.

When the Hamas-Israel conflict broke out on 7 October, Turkey took a somewhat nuanced stance and sought to play a role in mediating between the two sides. But Israel’s escalating aggression against Gaza led to a shift in Ankara’s positioning, with rhetoric from Turkish officials heating up.

By 25 October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the escalating crisis in Gaza when speaking to lawmakers from his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan said that Hamas is not a terrorist organisation, but instead is a liberation group that fights to defend Palestinian land and people.

"Israel's escalating aggression against Gaza led to a shift in Ankara's positioning, with rhetoric from Turkish officials heating up"

On 4 November, Turkey announced its recalling of its ambassador to Israel, citing the “unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Gaza caused by the continuing attacks by Israel against civilians and Israel’s refusal of calls for a ceasefire and the continuous and unhindered flow of humanitarian aid”.

Then one week later, Erdogan spoke at the Islamic-Arab Summit in Riyadh and declared that “the Israeli government is acting like the spoiled child of the West, and it has to compensate for the damages that it causes”.

Clearly, there are many powerful emotions and a tremendous amount of tension between Ankara and Tel Aviv. Such friction and anger directed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have served to undermine the process of renormalising Turkish-Israeli relations, which has gained momentum since 2022.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey in March 2022 and Netanyahu had plans to visit Ankara in July (which were cancelled due to Netanyahu’s health issues at the time), highlighting the intensity of efforts to improve bilateral relations before the war on Gaza erupted last month.

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Yet, anyone who understands the history of Turkish-Israeli relations has no reason to be surprised by the fact that the Israeli military killing of 11,000 Palestinians in Gaza and imposing a “complete siege” on the blockaded enclave since 7 October have elicited such an angry response from officials in Ankara and many segments of Turkish society.

“It’s clear that the Turkish government is always going to be more supportive of the Palestinian Authority than Israel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Matthew Bryza, who served as the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia from 2005 to 2009, in a recent interview when discussing Ankara’s potential to play a mediating role between Israelis and Palestinians.

“President Erdogan and all of his senior national security officials are always, have been, and remain very clear in condemning the settlements in the West Bank, the Israeli security forces’ violence against Palestinians, and the violation of Palestinian rights.”

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a rally in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza on 28 October 2023 at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. [Getty]

Indeed, the Palestinian issue always impacts Turkey’s foreign policy toward Israel, especially amid periods of violence unleashed against Palestinians.

“From the Turkish perspective, the Palestinian issue is an important factor in shaping the relations between Turkey and Israel, so, the Turks can’t just ignore this factor,” Dr Ali Bakir, professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldon Center, told The New Arab.

“They take it into consideration for many reasons - internal, regional, and international. That’s why whenever there is a problem in Israeli policies toward the Palestinians this will be reflected negatively by bilateral relations.”

"From the Turkish perspective, the Palestinian issue is an important factor in shaping the relations between Turkey and Israel"

Domestic politics

Like most Muslim-majority countries, Turkey has a population which strongly sides with Palestinians. Across many different Turkish cities, there have been protests and candlelight vigils held in solidarity with Palestinians trapped in Gaza since last month.

Among president Erdogan’s constituents are AKP supporters who care a lot about the Palestinian cause. These domestic factors have pressured the leadership in Ankara to come out strongly against Israel’s escalating aggression in Gaza.

On 28 October, hundreds of thousands of Turks came out to attend a massive rally in support of Palestinians at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. Erdogan, whose party organised the event, reiterated his government’s position that Hamas is not a terrorist entity and that “Israel is an occupier” while again calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Erdogan’s strong rhetoric against Israel since last month has been popular with many Turks.

“Public opinion, meaning the streets of [Turkey], is giving utmost support to the government’s conduct [and] current attitude in supporting Palestinians in Gaza and, hence, rejecting Israel’s disproportionate way of using force, which results [in] killing civilians in Gaza via…air bombardments and such,” said Dr Nurşin Ateşoğlu Güney, a professor at Nişantaşı University and a member of Turkey’s Presidential Council for Security and Foreign Affairs, in a TNA interview.

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Preserving official relations

By the same token, there is a formal relationship between Turkey and Israel that goes back to 1949, when Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognise Israel.

At least thus far, Erdogan’s government has not formally severed diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv and many experts doubt that the ongoing war on Gaza would result in that outcome. The reason why has much to do with the extensive bilateral cooperation that takes place across multiple domains including energy, investment, trade, tourism, and security.

With Erdogan explaining earlier this month that Ankara has “erased” Netanyahu and “[thrown] him away”, Turkey’s leadership probably won’t be engaging with the Israeli PM any time soon.

But Turkish and Israeli intelligence bodies will likely preserve their cooperation and lines of communication, as Erdogan himself has said.

Over 11,000 Palestinians, including 4,000 children, have been killed by Israel in Gaza since 7 October. [Getty]

Turkey's 'strategic autonomy'

In the wider geopolitical context, these tensions between Turkey and Israel underscore Ankara’s increased autonomy from the West. Turkish officials are less likely to be incentivised to tone down rhetoric against Israel due to Western pressure.

In fact, Turkey’s leadership is not mincing words when it comes to criticising Washington’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the war on Gaza and aligning more closely with positions held by some US adversaries.

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said on 20 October that US President Biden had signed off on Israel’s annihilation of Gaza. Ankara’s chief diplomat also joined his counterparts from Moscow and Tehran to put out a joint statement regarding the situation in Gaza following a mini-summit held in the Iranian capital.

"In the wider geopolitical context, these tensions between Turkey and Israel underscore Ankara's increased autonomy from the West"

It will be particularly important to monitor Turkish-Iranian relations and examine the extent to which Israel’s war on Gaza leads to Ankara and Tehran warming up to each other. How the US might react to Turkey and Iran strengthening their ties will also matter.

It could possibly fuel greater tension between Ankara and Washington, especially at a time in which a growing number of US lawmakers are busy depicting Hamas as equivalent to the Islamic State (IS) while frequently calling out Iran, Turkey, and Qatar’s governments for their relationships with the Palestinian group.

In an interview with TNA, Dr Valeria Giannotta, an Italian scholar and expert on Turkey, explained that misunderstandings between Ankara and Washington across a host of issues - including not only the war on Gaza but also counterterrorism in Syria and Turkish-Russian relations - have pushed Ankara further down the road of gaining greater “strategic autonomy” from the US.

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“Today Turkey…is committed to following an autonomous foreign policy that favours [its] own strategic and economic interests, even outside the American and NATO military shield. This means that it increasingly needs the support of the Arab and regional chancelleries,” Dr Giannotta told TNA.

Ultimately, after years of high levels of tension between Ankara and Western capitals, including Washington, the war on Gaza is another issue that will exacerbate tension between Turkey and its Western allies in NATO.

This gruesome violence in Gaza began shortly after the US fired down a Turkish drone in Syria, which also added another layer of tension to the Ankara-Washington alliance.

Nonetheless, for all this friction between Turkey and the US, it is safe to assume that Ankara will continue engaging Washington and other Western capitals as it continues putting energy into pushing for a ceasefire, despite strongly disagreeing with virtually the rest of NATO when it comes to questions about Hamas and Israeli war crimes in the besieged enclave.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero