As rockets shatter the fragile peace in the Middle East and nations pick sides, Dr. Hasan Selim Özertem dissects the precarious dance of Turkish foreign policy amidst a new deadly flare-up in the Israel-Hamas conflict. An incident at al-Ahli ignites a stark transformation in Ankara’s diplomatic voice, revealing the deep undercurrents of ideology and domestic politics that could reconfigure regional alliances and reshape Turkey’s geopolitical path.
On October 7, the world woke up to another regional crisis in the Middle East. Breaching Israel’s defenses, Hamas militants started to raid as hundreds of rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of Israelis were killed, and dozens were taken hostages before the militants retreated. This was a symbolic attack on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which caught Israel unprepared while relying on its high-tech defensive measures. This was a shock for the Israeli nation and government, and tarnished its longstanding sense of invulnerability. The reaction of the Netanyahu government was unprecedented. The Israeli Air Forces started bombardments in Gaza and left behind piles of rubble as if a destructive earthquake hit the urban areas. More than a million Arab civilians were forced to leave their homes, and the situation rapidly deteriorated into a humanitarian crisis.
In the aftermath of the breakout of the conflict, Ankara was cautious before taking sides and called for an immediate ceasefire. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proactively sought a diplomatic solution by employing telephone diplomacy and dispatching Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan to the capitals in the region. Ankara’s message was clear: there is a need for a two-state solution, and the international community should work on a political framework after a ceasefire and an exchange of hostages between the parties. Ankara’s position reflects Turkey’s traditional foreign policy on the Palestinian issue, which it has maintained for decades. AK Party officials, with President Erdogan at the helm, were careful to avoid bashing Israel and PM Benjamin Netanyahu as the humanitarian crisis deepened in the first two weeks. Instead, President Erdogan vocally questioned the increasing presence of the US military in the region, as aircraft carriers approached the Eastern Mediterranean, and called for humanitarian assistance to be allowed to be sent via the Rafah border.
Al-Ahli Incident: The Milestone in Turkey’s shifting position
The attitude of Ankara gradually shifted following the al-Ahli Hospital incident on October 17. The rocket blast cost dozens of civilian lives, and just like in other Muslim countries, thousands of demonstrators rallied to the streets and gathered outside Israeli diplomatic missions in Turkey. Moreover, some protestors also convened outside the Kurecik Radar base in Malatya, a facility set up in 2012 for early warning against ballistic missiles by NATO, which was not the case before.
The events of October 17 highlighted public sentiment as a reaction to the deepening humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Still, Turkish government officials continued to engage in proactive diplomacy to stave off the conflict’s possible expansion by preserving a neutral stance. FM Hakan Fidan attended the Palestine Summit in Cairo on October 21, proposing a new regional guarantee mechanism. This mechanism would support a peace process based on the two-state solution as per the 1967 borders. However, the domestic dynamics started to evolve in Turkey, and the political parties adopted a harsher tone. One of the symbolic reactions came from the MHP (National Movement Party). Sharing a post from his X account on October 21, the MHP’s Chairman Devlet Bahceli called for a ceasefire to be declared in 24 hours, and otherwise called for Turkey to take necessary steps to protect civilians in Gaza. Following this message, addressing the MHP on October 24, Bahceli said that the given time limit is over and Turkey should be ready for any scenario and act decisively. As a follow-up, he also met with President Erdogan at the Presidential Palace, and the two leaders discussed the current situation in Gaza.
On October 25, President Erdogan addressed AK Party Group MPs and discarded the cautious, neutral tone he had used since the beginning of the crisis on October 7. In his address, President Erdogan said he has no prejudices against the Israeli state but is against violations against civilians. Referring to Israel’s moves, the president said that the current government acts like an organisation [non-state actor] rather than a state. Moreover, he said, “Despite the West recognising Hamas as a terrorist organization, Hamas is a liberation group and a group of mujahedeen.”
On October 28, the AK Party organized a meeting in Istanbul, attracting 1.5 million people. During this meeting, President Erdogan continued his bashing and proclaimed Israel to be a war criminal. Moreover, he accused the West of being the primary culprit of the current situation in Gaza. Erdogan’s new discourse reflected a clear shift in the AK Party’s position. Not surprisingly, Israeli FM Eli Cohen, sharing a post from his X account, said, “Given the grave statements coming from Turkey, I have ordered the return of diplomatic representatives there in order to conduct a re-evaluation of the relations between Israel and Turkey.”
The dynamics behind Ankara’s discursive shift
Relations between Turkey and Israel entered into a normalisation process in 2021. After a rupture in diplomatic ties following the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel by the US in 2017, Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit in March 2022 was a harbinger of a new era in bilateral affairs. This also coincided with Turkey’s normalization efforts with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Armenia. The process with Israel rapidly moved forward with the presence of political will on both sides. In late 2022, the countries decided to appoint ambassadors, and even strategic cooperation opportunities, especially in the energy sector, started to be articulated. Considering Turkey’s narrowing leeway in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 2010s, these developments were signalling a breakthrough in Turkish foreign policy. During the UN General Assembly in September 2023, President Erdogan hosted PM Netanyahu in the Turkish House in New York, and the parties agreed to meet in Israel in November 2023.
Relations deteriorated rapidly within a month, coinciding with the fallout from the al-Aqsa Storm incident on October 7. Erdogan said that he cancelled his visit to Tel Aviv, and potential energy cooperation was sent back to the dusty shelves once again. It is clear that the current situation is a setback in the normalisation process.
It should be noted here that the Palestinian issue has played a definitive role for more than a decade in Israel-Turkey relations, and the current situation is not an exception. Bilateral affairs were harshly damaged following the One Minute Crisis in Davos back in 2009 and then hit rock bottom with the Mavi Marmara Flotilla incident in 2010. Both of these incidents were also linked with the Israeli operations in Gaza and its blockade since 2007. However, while analysing Turkey’s reactions to Israel, it is also essential to understand the ideological dynamics.
The AK Party is an offshoot of the National Outlook Movement. Led by Necmettin Erbakan, this movement maintained close links with the Muslim Brotherhood for decades. Considering Hamas’ relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, it is no surprise that even in the 1990s, there was a dialogue between Erbakan’s Welfare Party and Hamas. The dialogue was between the political parties back then, but it shifted to the next level when the AK Party government came to power in 2002. Hamas became one of the significant interlocutors of the Turkish state along with the al-Fatah in Turkey’s Palestine policy. Gradually, the Palestinian issue became an integral part of domestic politics in Turkey starting from the second half of the 2000s. Following the Arab popular movements, the line between foreign policy and domestic politics in Turkey blurred, and the Palestinian issue became one of the core elements of the election campaigns of the AK Party. This created further sensitivity among the society about the Palestinian issue.
Thus, it is no surprise that thousands of demonstrators protested against Israel after the al-Ahli incident or millions of people participated in the pro-Palestine rally on October 28. It can be said that as Israel continued to bomb Gaza, ideological dynamics and domestic political factors undermined the cautious posture of the AK Party government and pushed it to adapt and take the side of Hamas.
Implications for Turkey’s interests
The deepening humanitarian crisis has been one of Ankara’s main concerns since the beginning. However, the main concern has been regarding the spill-over effect of the conflict in the Middle East. Turkey has been dealing with regional crises for decades in its proximate neighbourhood. Starting with the US intervention in Iraq in the early 1990s and then with the Syrian civil war in the 2010s, Turkey has faced rising asymmetric threats along with a continuous wave of migration. After Israel’s ground operation, the evolution of the conflict into a proxy war will worsen the situation in the region. To mitigate this risk, Turkey has been pursuing proactive diplomacy. However, unlike its successfully orchestrated neutral position in the Ukrainian conflict, Ankara has shifted its position rapidly and leaned towards Hamas. This change undermines Ankara’s potential to play a mediator role in the crisis.
Now, it is clear that there is an apparent setback in the Israel-Turkey normalisation process. For the time being, Turkey has not made any statements about the current state of diplomatic affairs. However, the relations were severely damaged after the recent developments.
First of all, regarding US-Turkey relations, the dynamics are hardly favourable. On October 26, a group of members of Congress sent a letter addressing State Secretary Anthony Blinken to urge him to take decisive action to hold “Turkey accountable for its role in supporting and facilitating the operations of Hamas.” Interestingly, On October 27, the US issued a second round of sanctions aimed at the Palestinian militant group Hamas and listed three shareholders of a Turkish real estate fund based on allegations that they support Hamas. The move came after President Erdogan sent the protocol of Sweden’s accession to NATO on October 23, as he promised at NATO’s Vilnius summit. Ankara probably expected this manoeuvre to alleviate the potential pressure coming from the West as it started to bash the Israeli government. However, the growing disapproval in the US Congress suggests potential hurdles for Turkey, notably regarding F-16 jet sales, which seem to have become intertwined with the larger geopolitical context, including Sweden’s NATO membership.
The relations between Arab nations and Israel are pivotal, with the normalisation initiated by the Abraham Accords at risk of stalling if the current crisis becomes prolonged. This has led to a scattered focus among Gulf states. Such instability risks undermining Ankara’s efforts to secure financial support and investments from the Gulf, which could affect its economic strategies and the anticipated influx of funds vital to its financial markets.
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas remains complex and fraught with uncertainties. Israel’s determination to dismantle Hamas’s military capabilities is apparent, and the situation on the ground is highly dynamic. However, Israel’s exit strategy is unclear, and this raises concerns about an extended conflict with the potential for broader regional implications, including proxy warfare. Turkey closely follows the developments, but Ankara’s shifting position and changing discourse narrows down its manoeuvring space at the diplomatic level. This may have political and economic implications. Moreover, should the conflict escalate into a larger regional crisis, Ankara might need to reassess its stance and strategise to safeguard its embedded interests and mitigate any potential fallout.