Protesters wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a rally in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, in Ankara on December 24, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)

Erdogan Treads Delicate Line Between Words and Deeds on Gaza

Can Turkish foreign policy find an effective balance between meeting the demands of the public and not alienating its overseas partnerships?

March 21, 2024
Özge Genç

The war between Israel and Hamas has placed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a tough position. While he has responded with fiery rhetoric against Israel’s leadership and its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in practice his actions have been constrained by various factors, particularly Türkiye’s dire economic situation.  

While Erdogan’s forceful criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reminiscent of earlier crises such as the Turkish president’s famous 2009 snub to Israel’s then-president Shimon Peres at the Davos summit, foreign policy circles in Ankara argue that completely severing ties with Israel – a major trading partner – and becoming isolated in the Eastern Mediterranean would damage Türkiye’s interests.  

However, refraining from taking firmer action has inevitably sparked criticism from Erdogan’s conservative-religious base, as well as outspoken Muslim intellectuals, rights groups and humanitarian organizations, who are pushing for a bolder approach to force Israel to abandon its assault on Gaza. 

The Economy and the Electorate 

The Hamas attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians on October 7 posed an immediate foreign policy challenge for Erdogan. Just weeks before the attack, Ankara had been improving its relations with Israel with a view to pursuing economic opportunities and enhancing its leverage in the highly contentious arena of Eastern Mediterranean energy resources. At the same time, Türkiye had been mending its relationship with Israel’s main sponsor, the United States, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which had most recently been strained over Türkiye’s blocking of Sweden’s NATO membership bid and Ankara’s attempt to purchase F-16 fighter jets.  

However, Israel’s violent retaliation against Gaza pushed Türkiye to suspend this process of rapprochement with Israel. President Erdogan’s comparisons between Netahyahu’s actions and those of Nazi Germany, and his comments that Hamas is not a “terror group, are in stark contrast with Western views, but have not gained him great recognition among many states in the region, as Hamas is under scrutiny for hindering the Abraham Accords.  In the meantime, the West, particularly the U.S., has favored other actors such as Qatar over Türkiye in efforts to mediate a ceasefire. 

Even though Erdogan is at the peak of his grip on power, his administration is in a fragile situation. The economy is in a dire condition and Turkish democracy is being eroded – as is the prominence of the Palestinian cause on Türkiye’s agenda. While Erdogan’s condemnation of Israel became increasingly justified as the latter’s campaign in Gaza intensified and the toll on human life and infrastructure reached unimaginable levels, economic demands appear to be taking precedence over a principled foreign policy. It could be argued that recognizing his limitations, Erdogan has focused largely on his domestic constituency, adopting harsh rhetoric against Israel with little in the way of concrete action. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan has ramped up diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire, enable the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and suggest a guarantor formula to resolve the war.   

Domestic Pressure 

For the religiously inclined Turkish voters who make up Erdogan’s base, the situation in Gaza demands concrete steps, such as severing trade ties with Israel and formally intervening in South Africa’s case against it at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for violating the UN’s genocide convention. Israel’s most recent atrocities against civilians near the Rafah border, its continuing blockade of humanitarian aid and deliberate policy of starving Gazans are increasing the intensity of these calls. 

Indeed, Erdogan’s more religiously conservative critics have voiced concern with what they perceive as his prioritization of commercial interests over ethical considerations since the start of the Gaza conflict. Protestors demanding more action have even been teargassed or taken into custody. One told a local news outlet: “We were teargassed by the Turkish police for Israel’s interests.” 

Peaceful protesters have regularly held demonstrations in front of a shopping mall owned by one of Türkiye’s most prominent energy corporations, known for its commercial ties with Israel. They have also urged members of business association MÜSİAD to suspend ties with their counterparts in the country. In February, during an AKP rally for municipal elections, security staff removed a banner reading “End the shame of trade with Israel.   

Türkiye is a major supplier of products to Israel, from chemicals and steel to electronics, furniture and foodstuffs. Turkish social media users have commented widely on these ties, which have continued despite the plight and deprivation of Palestinians under Israeli attack. 

Foreign Minister Fidan responded to some of these criticisms, telling Al Jazeera in November that Türkiye could only cut trade ties with Israel or intervene in the genocide case if concerted action were taken with other actors in the region. So far, Nicaragua is the only country to apply to intervene in the ICJ case. Given Israel’s unconditional support from the West, many in Ankara policy circles have doubts about whether cutting trade relations would even affect Israel’s continuing military operation. 

Yet this reticence persists as Türkiye gears up for a significant election this month. A Metropoll survey from November 2023 indicated minimal support of just 3% for Israel among the Turkish population. In contrast, 44.3% welcomed Palestinian migrants, reflecting a high level of sympathy despite widespread opposition to the presence of large numbers of Syrian refugees in the country. A majority of Turks, 55.2%, do not view Hamas as a terrorist organization. These numbers suggest a national consensus that is sympathetic to Palestine. 

This may reduce the electoral impact of the Gaza rhetoric in the run-up to the municipal elections this month. Public sympathy for the Palestinians and the lack of government action diminish the AKP’s ability to use the Gaza war for political effect. Unlike previous elections, where Erdogan benefited from divisive issues, the Palestine issue presently does not provide a political wedge. The secular opposition is also advocating for the abolition of ties with Israel, possibly as a means of exposing the government’s inconsistencies. 

Erdogan has generally operated under the presumption that religious voters have no viable alternative to the AKP. However, the New Welfare Party, a traditional conservative party that has been a vocal critic of Erdogan’s inaction against Israel, has said it will not support his party in the municipal elections, which may lure some defectors. 

Ultimately, a ceasefire in Gaza will hinge on Western, and particularly American, pressure. Türkiye’s involvement depends on the West’s willingness to include Türkiye at the table. The Palestinians would gain leverage, however, from Türkiye playing a stronger role. Erdogan is therefore facing pressure from his constituents, who believe that Türkiye could put more pressure and negotiate more forcefully than it is at present. But as long as Türkiye’s economy and democracy remain a liability, its influence and credibility as a diplomatic actor will suffer.  


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.

Issue: Great Power Competition, Israel War on Gaza, Regional Relations
Country: Palestine-Israel, Turkey


Visiting Fellow
Özge Genç is a visiting fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs. Previously, she was the research director at the Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM) in Istanbul, Türkiye. Prior to that position, she was the director of the democratization program at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV). She… Continue reading Erdogan Treads Delicate Line Between Words and Deeds on Gaza