Geopolitics

Israel labelled as a terrorist state: Turkish President Erdogan and his motivation for supporting Hamas

Juraj Bystriansky

The conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas is redefining relationships and dynamics within the region. Saudi Arabia has interrupted its talks on the potential normalisation of relations with Tel Aviv. Still, the most significant downturn due to the fighting has been observed in Israeli-Turkish relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rhetorically positioned himself at the forefront of an anti-Israel coalition, aiming to leverage the crisis for political capital both domestically and on the international political stage.

Turkey’s policy in the region in recent years has been primarily defined by efforts to normalise relations with regional actors, including its relations with Israel. To address its economic challenges, Ankara has sought to break diplomatic isolation in the region resulting from its previous assertive foreign policy. Turkey has gradually succeeded in establishing cooperation with its former regional rivals, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and has also experienced an improvement in Turkish-Egyptian relations. Erdogan’s long-term efforts in the region have been characterised primarily by a pragmatic attempt to build economic ties throughout the area. Until recently Turkey also pragmatically tried to strengthen diplomatic relations with Israel, highlighted by an unprecedented meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just weeks before the surprising Hamas attack.

In the aftermath of the Hamas attack, Erdogan initially sought to portray himself primarily as a mediator. The president communicated with the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, aiming to ease tensions between the two sides. The goal was to take advantage of the improved diplomatic relations with Israel and Erdogan’s long-standing contacts with Hamas while simultaneously avoiding further strain in relations with the USA. However, these efforts received limited response from relevant international actors. The reluctance of US President Biden to visit Ankara after his visit to Israel in mid-October indirectly confirmed Ankara’s limited credibility in fairly mediating such a significant conflict.

The failure to mediate negotiations and Israel’s determination to launch a ground operation in Gaza contributed to Turkish President Erdogan unequivocally siding with Hamas, labelling Israel as a terrorist state. Erdogan’s move was motivated by both ideological and pragmatic factors. Ideologically, Erdogan and Hamas draw from the same source—the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey has a long-standing collaboration with Hamas, providing refuge and, in many cases, even Turkish passports to its leaders, enabling them to travel freely in the region.

A significant part of Turkish society traditionally harbours strong sympathies for the Palestinian struggle for independence, especially among conservative Turks who view Hamas as a legitimate representative of Palestinian resistance. President Erdogan actively exploits this sentiment, as demonstrated in his address in Istanbul, where he condemned Israel’s military response as disproportionate. He accused the West and even labelled Israel as a Western colonial project, questioning its very existence. Additionally, he portrayed Hamas as freedom fighters and suggested that the West was fostering a crusade-like atmosphere against Muslims. Erdogan’s public support for Hamas, questioning Israel’s existence and emphasising the differences between the Western and Muslim worlds, clearly indicate how he leverages these social and cultural distinctions under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood to gain support, particularly from conservative voters.

Furthermore, it is not coincidental that local elections in Turkey are just a few months away. This provides Erdogan with an ideal opportunity to consolidate power domestically and regain voters in major cities lost to the main opposition party (CHP) in 2019. The President, along with his party AKP, considers major cities such as Ankara and Istanbul as crucial elements for maintaining a politically loyal base through questionable practices, including providing financial subsidies, various social programs, and favouritism in city tenders. While the motivations behind Erdogan’s ever-changing foreign policy may not always seem rational, they often stem from short-term domestic political calculations. In this case, Erdogan is also driven by the ambition to position himself as a leader in the Muslim world.The unpredictable shifts in Turkey’s foreign policy, balancing between the East and the West, and open support for radical movements like Hamas have numerous negative impacts on the international stage for Turkey. Due to these reasons, it becomes incredibly challenging for any actor to perceive Turkey as a rational and unbiased mediator between two parties. The inability to fully commit to one sphere of influence is evident because Turkey maintains strong economic ties with the West and is a member of NATO while simultaneously sharing values with the Islamic world, as supported by statements like those in Erdogan’s speech in Istanbul earlier this month. This is likely to lead to increased international isolation, loss of legitimacy, and heightened tensions with Washington, especially when Ankara is interested in purchasing F-16 fighter jets from the U.S., including modernisation packages for its ageing fleet of such aircraft. Domestically, prospects are not optimal for the Turkish president either, as recent polls indicate that his radical rhetoric may not be the key to success, with up to 60% of the population believing that Turkey should not cooperate with Hamas or should remain neutral in this conflict. On the domestic front, Erdogan’s radical rhetoric against Israel may trigger a minor increase in voter support, but perhaps not to the extent he expects. The Turkish president is also taking the risk of further polarising Turkish society and jeopardising relations with crucial Western allies, considering the country’s significant economic dependence on the EU and the USA. The recent announcement about submitting a bill approving Sweden’s NATO membership bid to parliament is primarily a symbolic reminder that Ankara still holds strong cards in case the West plans to react to Erdogan’s anti-Israel stance.

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