Turkey, Israel, and the Gaza crisis

Summary: Turkey is Israel’s sixth largest trade partner but the Palestine issue poisons relations; the Turkish public and opposition demand action over Gaza; Turkey and the US also bitterly at odds over a range of major issues.

The emir of Kuwait, the king of Jordan and the Egyptian foreign minister are among the notables attending the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s extraordinary summit in Istanbul today. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hosting and so expectations are high the meeting will deliver a punchy message to the U.S. and Israel about the recent killing by Israeli forces of 62 Palestinians on the Gaza border. As Turkish relations with Israel deteriorate again, differences between the Saudi-lead bloc plus Israel and the Iran-Qatar-Turkey axis become more entrenched.

We are grateful for the article below by David Barchard, a writer on Turkish history and politics.

Turkey, Israel, and the Gaza crisis

On Friday morning, foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held an emergency meeting in Istanbul at Turkey’s request to frame the organization’s response to the deaths of 62 Palestinians last Monday, shot in Gaza by Israeli troops while demonstrating against the opening of a US Embassy in Jerusalem.  Turkey wants firm action. “We must give the harshest response to Israel’s humanitarian crime,” Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, its foreign minister, declared in his opening speech, adding that Muslim countries must not permit the international status of Jerusalem to be altered.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu    

The inevitable and awkward question is just what harsh reaction is possible, as long as Turkey and Israel continue to have flourishing trade ties, with a volume of US4.3 billion last year, despite the apparent near-death state of their once warm political relationship.

Turkey’s government is under pressure to be seen to be acting decisively, not least because it is currently fighting a double-election campaign for parliament and the presidency. The fact that the Jerusalem killings coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, a time of Muslim piety and solidarity, made them especially distressing to the public. Turkish domestic public opinion, divided on many other issues, seems solidly united on this one. The secularist media have reacted with as much anger to the Jerusalem killings as the Islamists, and the centre-left main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) which a decade ago sometimes criticized President Erdoğan for damaging relations with Israel is now taunting him with not being firm enough. It wants  sanctions, and these would almost certainly affect trade.

In diplomatic terms Ankara has in fact already responded very strongly. Israel’s ambassador in Turkey was asked to leave and when doing so at the airport he was prevented from going through VIP channels and put through metal detectors, generating a strong protest from Israel. It will have fallen on deaf ears as Turks remember the humiliation on Israeli TV inflicted on their then ambassador to Israel in 2010.

There have been long spells in the past when diplomatic relations between the two countries have been more or less dormant. The chances that a new one has begun are increased by the unprecedentedly poor state of Turkey’s relations with the US. In the past, Turkish working relations with Israel were always a non-negotiable part of the political equation underlying the Turkish American alliance. In March 2013, after a breach of nearly three years caused by the Israeli attack on the Blue Marmara aid flotilla to Gaza and the killing of nine Turks during it, President Obama managed to patch up a deal involving an Israeli apology and payment of compensation to relatives of the men killed in the Blue Marmara attack.

That looks to be beyond the reach of President Trump, whom President Erdoğan says can no longer be a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians after the opening of the US Jerusalem Embassy. The problem goes much deeper than just that. Turkey and the US now are bitterly at odds over a range of major issues and its status inside the Western alliance looks uncertain. These are headed by Turkish perceptions of what is seen as American complacency towards and sheltering of Erdoğan’s arch-enemy, the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen and his secretive but influential world-wide brotherhood, whom virtually everyone in Turkey regards as behind the 15 July 2016 attempted military coup. There are also deep suspicions of the American military alliance with the Syrian Kurds against ISIL, and an unresolved row over an American Protestant pastor, jailed for over a year in Turkey on vague charges of involvement in terrorism and possibly facing a life sentence in prison, despite a personal appeal from President Donald Trump to President Erdoğan. Not surprisingly perhaps, there is currently no US ambassador in Ankara, the last incumbent having departed in October 2017 amid media vilification and even calls for his prosecution, with no replacement announced so far.

The absence of the US as a mediator between Turkey and Israel is perhaps only a secondary factor. The constant underlying irritant is the festering situation in Gaza and the persistent flare-ups and killings to which it gives rise, each episode reviving the hostility. Israeli violence in Gaza early in 2009 tipped Erdoğan, then Turkey’s prime minister, away from a previously relatively acquiescent initial attitude towards relations with Israeli and led him to confront President Shimon Peres on live television at Davos. Since then it has consistently been Gaza which has triggered Turkish-Israeli friction.

One reason for this seems to be close though generally unacknowledged relations between Turkey’s ruling AKP and Hamas, the militant Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brothers. When the then US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said in June last year that the Muslim Brotherhood was part of the government in Turkey (and so could not be declared a terrorist organization), denials issued swiftly from Ankara.

But even though they do not say so openly, several prominent organizations in the AKP’s Turkey seem to belong to the Brotherhood, ranging from leading humanitarian institutions, to business associations. Rehber TV, the main pro-government Kurdish language TV station offers its viewers a heavy dosage of Palestinian news and even soap operas with a strong pro-Hamas flavour. Erdoğan has not always listened to strong calls coming from these quarters to back away from improved relations with Israel, but he will probably be more inclined to do so after this week’s Gaza killings.

That being so, what scope is there for Turkish sanctions against Israel? In the past these have included measures such as restrictions on flight paths for El Al or the cancelling of military agreements, options which are now largely exhausted. Trade is the potential sanctions target Turkey’s opposition has its eyes on, the country being Israel’s sixth largest trade partner and having a large trade surplus with it, almost all business now being conducted by low profile private sector companies in contrast with a generation ago when defence industry cooperation was important.

The chances are that, despite any gestures the OIC emergency conference comes up with, business will continue and perhaps even carrying on growing. But in the longer term, unless some day there is a solution to Gaza, it is hard to see Turkish-Israeli relations ever returning to normal.

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