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PoliticsMiddle East

Erdogan calls Israel 'terrorist state'

Daniel Derya Bellut | Hilal Köylü
May 19, 2021

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking advantage of the escalation between Israel and Hamas to present himself as an Islamic leader and score political points at home.

Bildergalerie Weltweiter Protest auf den Konflikt zwischen Palästina und Israel
Erdogan's Islamist and anti-Israel rhetoric appeals to his hardline supportersImage: Dilara Senkaya/REUTERS

While many heads of state and government are as diplomatic as they can be regarding the growing Israeli-Hamas conflict, urging both sides to de-escalate, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken a very different tack.

As so often in the recent past, the Turkish president has called Israel a "terrorist state" and "immoral." Erdogan has been following up daily with more verbal attacks on the Israeli state and its allies. The United States recently reacted by condemning Erdogan's remarks. On Tuesday, Erdogan lashed out at Austria for hoisting Israeli flags on government buildings in Vienna. "I curse the Austrian state," the Turkish president said.

It is no secret that Erdogan sympathizes and maintains close contacts with the radical Islamic terrorist organization Hamas. Nevertheless, the Turkish public has recently won the impression that the government is pursuing a course of rapprochement with Israel. Despite the many harsh words Erdogan regularly directs at Israel, talks have recently become more frequent again. Trade is also on the rise, with exports to Israel increasing steadily in recent years.

 Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Erdogan appears to be using the Israel-Hamas conflict to score points on the domestic frontImage: picture-allliance/AP/B. Ozbilici

Rapprochement ends

Ankara has indeed been making efforts to normalize relations with Israel, said Sinan Ulgen, director of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). "The escalation and tensions in East Jerusalem could not have come at a worse time for Turkey," he concluded.

Ulgen and many other observers even believe that the Turkish government was aiming to play a mediating role between Israel and the Palestinians — there were regular talks with the Israeli Knesset (the Parliament), as well as with the Palestinian leadership. In September 2020, representatives of the two leading Palestinian organizations, Fatah and Hamas, met to settle the 15-year dispute between the two organizations — with the Turkish government as mediator.

Three men seen from the back raising their arms before a pile of burning tires
The West Bank has seen several protests over the current conflictImage: Ammar Awad/REUTERS

"Active mediation between Hamas and Israel and establishing a dialogue would be an initiative that would have many benefits for Turkey," Ulgen said. But now that Erdogan has launched an anti-Israel campaign, he says, it will be difficult to continue the process.

"In these circumstances, where tensions have reached the highest level, it seems impossible to start new peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," says Oytun Orhan of the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "It is simply not possible at the moment to take a neutral position in the current tensions."

Ankara wants leadership role in Muslim world

Ankara could not be further from taking a mediating role at the moment. The Turkish government seems to have a very different task in view. In an address to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which includes 56 Muslim countries, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu emphasized Turkey's status as a role model. "The Islamic community (ummah) expects leadership from us," he said. What he meant was taking consistent action against the Israeli government, which, according to the Turkish foreign minister, is forging ahead with "ethnic, religious and cultural cleansing."

Turkish foreign policy analyst Aydin Sezer said he was not surprised that the ruling Islamic conservative AKP party is pouring oil on the fire. Erdogan always tries to satisfy his party's Islamic base, he said. "The government had to react this way (in this conflict) — mainly for domestic political reasons." The normalization of relations with Israel did not go down well with the AKP base, Sezen added.

Mevlut Cavusoglu
Turkey wants a leadership role in the Muslim world, says Foreign Minister Mevlut CavusogluImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Turkia

Isolated on the world stage

The Turkish president often uses religious or nationalist rhetoric to mobilize his core supporters. Polls show that Erdogan and the AKP are facing a decline in popularity. Members of the opposition and critics accuse him of using harsh rhetoric and polarization to draw attention from problems like government failure in managing the coronavirus pandemic and the long-running economic crisis.

Even if the Turkish government's Islamist rhetoric appeals to the AKP's main supporters, the question is whether the Muslim world wants Turkish leadership at all. Its bilateral relations are difficult not just with Israel — Turkey is currently isolated in the entire Middle East. Arab countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also turned their backs on Ankara.

This article has been translated from German.