Erdogan Does Not Care About the Palestinians

December 5, 2023 Topic: Israel-Hamas Conflict Region: Middle East Tags: ErdoganTurkeyIsraelHamasPalestine

Erdogan Does Not Care About the Palestinians

Under Erdogan’s leadership, Ankara has demonstrated the extent of its moral and ethical failure.

James Carville coined one of the most quoted phrases in political discourse when he stated, “it’s the economy, stupid”—a reference to George Bush’s loss of the 1992 U.S. presidential election against his rival Bill Clinton. This also happens to be the very same reason why Erdogan is not serious about economically boycotting Israel. Since Hamas carried out the October 7 terror attacks, Erdogan has attempted to position himself as Israel’s premier critic in the Muslim world with rhetorical outbursts, equating Israel’s counterterrorism mission in Gaza as a clear demonstration of the Jewish state’s “genocidal” intentions towards the Palestinian people. Other than rhetoric, what has Erdogan done to advocate for Palestinians?

At the direction of Erdogan, Turkey is preparing to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In material terms, Turkish Airlines—the country’s flag carrier, announced that it would stop serving Coca-Cola products on domestic routes. At the same time, various government personalities urged the general Turkish public to boycott Starbucks, Burger King, and McDonald’s, as all these American brands support Israel. If all these “measures” appear to be petty and nonsensical, it is because they are. Additionally, they also represent the extent to which Erdogan is willing to go to punish Israel economically. He is too afraid to take any substantive measures that would economically target Israel.

Turkey’s total volume of trade with Israel is presently just over $7 billion annually. If you look at the volume over a twenty-five-year timeframe, you will see that with very few exceptions (most likely attributable to economic downturns), bilateral trade between the two countries has grown year on year. The economic relationship is sophisticated and mature, covering a wide range of goods and services exported by Turkey. Among the varied items included are $1 billion worth of iron and steel, around $560 million worth of vehicles, and $360 million in machinery. Even from this brief perspective, it is clear that Turkey’s private sector has robust linkages with its Israeli counterparts. These have survived previous diplomatic crises, including the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, ultimately leading to both capitals removing their ambassadors. Suffice it to say that substantive economic ties constrain any meaningful boycott of Israel by Turkey’s leadership.

This economic picture presents us with several key takeaways. Most importantly, Erdogan is not serious about economically boycotting Israel. His frequent anti-Israeli rhetoric, which has prompted the Israeli foreign ministry to “re-evaluate its diplomatic ties” with Ankara, is more than likely just limited to rhetorical grandstanding. While Turkish Airlines has halted its flights between Istanbul and Tel Aviv since October 7, it is important to note that, on average, Turkish carriers operated no less than eighty weekly flights between the two countries. These are likely to resume in the near future to continue facilitating access to business travelers, as well as the high number of Israeli tourists who visit Turkey annually. 

Turkey’s duplicitous and insincere stance towards Israel is better demonstrated by some of its businessmen. Take the case of Mustafa Semerci, a Turkish businessman who, in 2018, ran to become a member of the Turkish parliament as a candidate for a far-right party with an anti-Israeli platform. During campaign season, his local party chairman declared that “whoever does business with Israel is my enemy.” This was an interesting declaration, which completely overlooked the fact that Semerci himself owned a cable company that exported its product directly to Israel!

None of this should come as a surprise. Turkey’s political Islamists and hardline nationalists want to have their cake and eat it, too. Publicly, as demonstrated by Erdogan’s vehemently anti-Israeli language at pro-Hamas rallies, they take delight in vilifying Israel. However, when it comes to actually matching words with action, they fall short. Turkey is not likely to cut economic ties with Israel in any real way. Why is this the case? It’s relatively easy to explain. 

The anti-Israel rhetoric provides Erdogan with a useful distraction. At home, Turks are suffering one of the worst economic downturns in the history of the republic, with consumer inflation, unemployment, and poverty levels running at record levels. It is hard for Erdogan to address citizens and convince them that the country’s economy is in capable hands, while the vast majority of them are dismayed with their socio-economic situation. In 2016, inflation stood at just over 6 percent versus a whopping 126 percent at present. In 2016, the value of $1 was three-and-a-half TL versus twenty-nine TL now. Finally, in 2016, a person earning the minimum wage could afford to purchase between forty and forty-five kg of meat versus twenty-eight and thirty kg today. 

In short, Erdogan distracts the public’s attention away from the dire economic situation at home while his pro-Hamas rhetoric props up his false image of being allegedly pro-Palestinian. In the short term, this may help him succeed in the country’s upcoming local elections in 2024, where Erdogan hopes to recapture control of key cities away from the opposition, most notably Istanbul and Ankara.

None of his rhetoric, however, distracts from Turkey’s ongoing and actual material support of Hamas. Ankara does not need to boycott Israel to continue supporting the region’s most notorious terrorist organization. As an entity, “Hamas established a presence in Turkey in 2011 at the direct invitation of the Turkish government…[and] maintains offices in Turkey, …In 2012, the Turkish government reportedly donated $300 million to Hamas as the group set up shop in Turkey.” On many occasions, “Erdogan openly takes meetings with senior Hamas leadership, most recently in July 2023, when he hosted Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh. Ankara granted Haniyeh Turkish citizenship in 2020. His deputy, Saleh al-Arouri, also received a Turkish passport.” 

All told, the merging picture is clear. Erdogan does not intend to upend his country’s substantive trade ties with Israel, but he wants the right to attempt to publicly humiliate it while providing support to Hamas, an organization that denies Israel’s basic right to exist and resorts to terrorism to achieve this goal. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Ankara has clearly demonstrated the extent of its moral and ethical failure. If Turkey is truly intent on supporting Hamas and providing it sanctuary, Israeli businesses should take note of this and opt to find alternative partners. Turkey’s treaty allies, on the other hand, should recognize Erdogan’s duplicitous stance and not be afraid to call him out for his moral failures. Across the entire Muslim world, there is no leader who is as disingenuous in their stance towards the Arab-Israeli conflict as Turkey’s Erdogan. The facts speak for themselves. 

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy. He is also an Associate Professor of National Security Studies at Marine Corps University (MCU).