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Israel-Hamas war strains ties with Turkey

November 4, 2023

Just over a month ago, the leaders of Turkey and Israel were seen smiling together for the cameras in New York. But now, Turkey's president has accused Israel of war crimes. The relationship is increasingly complicated.

Netanyahu (left) and Erdogan (right) met on the sidelines of the the 78th session of the UN General Assembly this September
Netanyahu (left) and Erdogan (right) met on the sidelines of the the 78th session of the UN General Assembly this SeptemberImage: AK Party/Zuma/picture alliance

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in New York in mid-September, the atmosphere was markedly friendly. The two leaders spoke of improving bilateral relations, and joked about their good "ties" — a pun referencing their matching red neckties. 

Today, the jovial September meeting between Netanyahu and Erdogan almost seems like it is from another era. Addressing a pro-Palestine rally in Istanbul last week, Erdogan said Hamas is not a terrorist organization but a liberation group. He also called Israel an occupier and accused the Israeli government of behaving like a "war criminal" and trying to "eradicate" Palestinians.

Turkish President Erdogan is seen against a backdrop of protesters waving Turkish and Palestine flags
Turkish President Erdogan sided with Hamas at a major pro-Palestine rally in Istanbul on October 28Image: DHA

Germany, the EU, US and several Arab states, along with other nations, have classified Hamas as a terrorist group. The militant Islamic group does not recognize the state of Israel, and has vowed to destroy it.

In response to Erdogan's speech, Israel recalled its diplomats from Turkey. Writing on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said on October 28 that Israel would "conduct a reevaluation of the relations between Israel and Turkey." Diplomatic sources in Ankara have said they expect the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv will soon be declared "persona non grata" by Israel, which has not yet commented on the matter.

The Israeli war Cabinet currently only comments on its war against Hamas, Middle East analyst Gabriel Haritos told DW. "But recalling diplomats speaks for itself," added Haritos, who works for the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Greece, as well as Israel's Ben-Gurion Research Institute.

Turkey's mediation efforts limited

Many people in Israeli society are angry with Turkey, said Haritos. This is because, he said, they see Turkey as a state that has allied itself with Hamas, a terrorist organization that is like "a new version of Islamic State." While Haritos said Erdogan was already unpopular in Israel, now he is even more disliked.

In the first days of the Gaza conflict, Turkey offered to mediate. Yet Turkey soon sided with Hamas, which controls Gaza. Retired Turkish ambassador Safak Gokturk, who spent years working in the Middle East department of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, told DW it was clear Turkey would be limited in its ability to help resolve the crisis. This is due to the ideological links between Turkey's ruling Islamist AKP party and Hamas, he said.

Gaza conflict could end fragile Israel-Turkey rapprochement

The Turkish government's pro-Hamas stance probably serves a domestic agenda in that "it needs to satisfy its [voter] base," said Gokturk. This base mainly consists of conservative Muslims.

Strong economic links despite conflict

Economic ties between Israel and Turkey have remained strong and even grown in recent years, despite numerous political differences between both countries in the past. The Israeli-Turkish trade volume increased sixfold between 2002 and 2022, from $1.41 billion to $8.91 billion — and Turkey was governed by Erdogan's AKP for this entire period. Israel is also Turkey's 10th most important partner when it comes to exports. And in 2022, a record 700,000 Israeli tourists visited Turkey.

Despite the recent tensions, these good economic relations should survive the current crisis, former Turkish diplomat Bozkurt Aran told DW. Aran, director of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, said both countries need each other and that "businesspeople from both nations have known each other for a long time and trust each other."

Haritos agrees — he, too, doesn't expect economic ties to deteriorate. "Quite the opposite: the end of the political romance sparked a business boom for both countries," he said.

Turkey was first Muslim country to recognize Israel

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize the state of Israel in 1949. Israel's founder, David Ben-Gurion, had Ottoman citizenship, spoke Turkish and studied law in Istanbul. Turkish-Israeli bilateral trade and tourism were booming and defense cooperation was considerable before Turkey's AKP party took power in 2002. Israeli fighter pilots, for example, trained in Turkish airspace, and Israeli technicians modernized Turkish fighter planes.

Turkish-Israeli relations did, however, take a serious hit on May 31, 2010 when Israeli naval forces boarded the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship delivering aid to Gaza. Nine Turkish activists were killed on the vessel, and Turkey subsequently withdrew its ambassador from Israel.

The Mavi Marmara is seen upon its return to Turkey, with crowds waving Turkish and Palestine flags
Upon returning to Turkey, the Mavi Marmara was welcomed by a huge crowdImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In 2013, Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan, offering $20 million (about €18.6 million today) in compensation. Further diplomatic crises have followed, however, for instance when then-US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Trust 'easily lost and hard to regain'

Turkey's current stance toward Israel will have significant consequences in the long term, said Aran. "Undoubtedly, Erdogan's Hamas statement will have an impact, not only on relations with Israel, but also on relations with the West — you can't avoid that," he said, before adding that this stance will damage Turkey's global standing and that the government will have to regain trust in foreign affairs. "Trust is a valuable asset, it is easily lost and hard to regain."

How bilateral relations will develop between Turkey and Israel will only become clear after the war, added Haritos. "The only Israeli agenda [right now] is to win this war and destroy Hamas. Only then will Israel remember which governments were friendly and which were not."

Gülsen Solaker contributed to this report. This article was originally written in German.

Burak Ünveren standing in a newsroom, wearing a suit
Burak Ünveren Multimedia editor with a focus on Turkish foreign policy and German-Turkish relations.