Erdoğan’s Palestine Dilemma: Love, Trade, and the Anatomy of a Collaborator


The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government recently announced a halt to trade with Israel in the seventh month of the genocidal operation in Gaza. While the extent to which trade was actually stopped is debatable, it is understood that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took this step primarily to alleviate public discontent and to put pressure on Israel with the green light of the United States.

The Palestine-Israel issue has long served as a litmus test that reveals the inconsistencies of Turkish foreign policy. While Erdoğan is an ardent spokesman for the Palestinian cause, he has also increased trade with Israel 6.3 times in the first 20 years of his rule. This highly exploitative binary politics has been a “sustainable hypocrisy” that has worked well among AKP supporters. The trade volume, which was $1.4 billion in 2002 when the AKP came to power, increased steadily to $8.9 billion in 2022. In 2022, Israel was the 10th largest importer of Turkish products, slipping to 13th place in 2023.

Although trade volume decreased to $6.8 billion last year, despite the massacre in Gaza, things went well. In just the first three months of 2024, trade volume exceeded $1.4 billion. In March, exports to Israel reached a record $437 million while imports totaled $167 million.  For seven months starting on October 7th, 2023, ship traffic between the Turkish ports of İskenderun, Mersin, Izmir-Aliağa and Istanbul-Ambarlı and the Israeli ports of Haifa and Ashdod continued uninterrupted. Despite this, the pro-government media claimed that “Trade with Israel is a big lie”.  

Questions on oil shipments to Israel and the use of the İncirlik base by the US for military shipments to Tel Aviv have been ignored in the parliament. All proposals by opposition parties to investigate the extent of trade with Israel or to review diplomatic, commercial, and military relations were rejected by the ruling bloc. The fact that the steel, iron and chemicals used by Israel in its defense industry come from Türkiye is the burning issue in the debate. Steel accounts for 20 percent of Turkish exports to Israel while iron and other metals represent 4.2 percent and chemicals comprise 11.7 percent.

In the private sector, the partnerships of large conglomerates such as Zorlu and Koç with Israel were not affected by the war. Zorlu Enerji, which invested $1.3 billion in Israel, has a 51 percent stake in Ashdod Energy, 26.5 per cent in Solad Energy, 51 percent in Ramat Negev Energy and 25 percent in Dorad Energy. In the production of armored vehicles, OTOKAR of the Koç Group works with Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and BMC works with Carmor (previously known as Hatehof).

The Success of Independent Journalism and Civil Society

Erdoğan’s insistence on providing the Jewish state with its most vital needs despite calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “murderer”, the massacres in Gaza a “genocide” and Hamas a “national liberation movement” is truly diabolical. While the war was burning hearts, the number of ships going from Türkiye to Israel reached 293 just from October 7 to November 19.

According to the AKP’s army of trolls, these cargo ships to Israel contained shipments to Palestine. The undeniable information obtained by journalist Metin Cihan, who traced trade with Israel, and the campaigns of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS Türkiye), One Thousand Young People for Palestine and other civil society groups, and on the political scene, especially the criticism by the AKP’s Islamist rivals, led to the defeat of the government. During this period, Hasan Bitmez, Istanbul MP for the Saadet Party, who was subjected to verbal attacks by AKP deputies while criticizing the government in parliament, died in hospital after suffering a heart attack on the podium. He was the first victim of the policy of denial and deception. Additionally, pro-Palestinian demonstrators were also subjected to police violence. Within AKP circles, the idea that trade with Israel had cost the government in the March 31st local elections made it easier for Erdoğan to back down.

The Re-Welfare Party (Re-Welfare), which stipulated that trade with Israel should be stopped in response to the government’s demand for support for its candidate in Istanbul, defeated the AKP in some municipalities. Finally, the government was forced to admit to its ongoing trade with Israel, and on April 9th it restricted the export of 54 products to Israel. Fifteen days after this decision, Erdoğan proclaimed, “We are no longer maintaining intensive commercial relations with Israel, that job is over.” Yet the ship traffic continued.

This partial measure could not prevent the reactions. On April 26, Erdoğan again lashed out, this time saying, “We cut off our relations with Israel, we are cutting them,” but he was not yet at the point where he could say, “We stopped”.  Eventually, the Turkish Ministry of Commerce announced that all export and import transactions were halted on May 3rd. On November 4, 2023, Erdoğan responded to criticism about why relations were not cut off by saying, “We wrote him off (Netanyahu). But it is not possible to sever ties completely.”  

This approach is in line with the AKP’s established understanding. In other words, trade is untouchable, even sacred, when accompanied by religious motifs. While defending trade with Israel, AKP Deputy Chairman Nihat Zeybekçi said: “We condemn the genocide, alright/ that’s fine (Eyvallah), but Israel is a country where we sell six and buy one. We need to be more sensitive. We are also working on this.” Journalist Metin Cihan revealed that Zeybekçi’s company, Turkuaz Textile, also made small-scale imports from Israeli Tosaf.  Zeybekçi, who drew the ire of even AKP supporters, stood by his words.

Even after the announcement that trade was halted, the crackdown on pro-Palestinian demonstrators continued. Five people from the One Thousand Youth for Palestine were arrested for “insulting the president” with the slogan “Murderer Israel, collaborator Erdoğan”. These measures showed that the government will not forgive those who expose it. The revelation of the ties of many AKP businesspeople with Israel, who had shed tears for Gaza on their social media accounts, increased people’s astonishment.

Trade Stopped? No. There is a Leak in the Embargo! 

Of course, the business world is disturbed. It is warned that not only the real sector but also the tourism sector will be affected. The number of Israeli tourists coming to Türkiye in 2022 exceeded 843 thousand. In 2023, this number decreased to 766 thousand.

Following the ban on exporting 54 products to Israel, third countries such as Slovenia, Bulgaria, Greece and Egypt began to be used for the transfer. With this adjustment, Israel is not listed as the destination port on the bill of landing; the shipment is made to another country’s port and then to Israel. The Slovenian ports of Koper and Ljubljana especially stand out as transshipment points. Türkiye does not prevent this either.  Indirect shipments to Israel via other countries are expected to develop further. Direct ship traffic to Israel has not stopped either.  For example, the Turkon Istanbul left İskenderun port on May 4 and arrived at Haifa port on May 5.

On May 9, Israeli business daily Globes reported that despite the embargo decision, the Turkish Ministry of Commerce temporarily allowed the supply of construction materials and notified factories about the new decision by letter. Israel’s Channel 12 stated that the temporary exemption is valid for a period of three months. It was not long before ministers got involved in the discussion. Israeli Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, posted a message on his X account: “Erdoğan withdrew and canceled most of the trade restrictions.” Turkish Trade Minister Ömer Bolat responded, “The statements of the Israeli Foreign Minister are absolutely delusional. We stand behind the decision. The decision remains valid.” These zigzags show that even the embargo decision was not carried out “honestly”.

The immunity of the oil shipments is indisputable. Israel receives crude oil from the Baku-Ceyhan Pipeline and refined oil from Socar’s Star Refinery. Although Azerbaijan is the primary source of oil and Iraqi Kurdistan is the secondary source, Türkiye has not closed the valve. Erdoğan does not want to upset his close friend, Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev, who is close to Israel. According to information from Israeli officials cited by Israeli business daily, Globes, oil shipments from Ceyhan to Haifa did not stop as of May 4. In January, Azerbaijani oil ranked first in Israel’s imports with 523.5 thousand tons. From January to November 2023, Azerbaijan was Israel’s second largest supplier, providing it with 2.24 million tons.

Coordination With the US?

The reversal of Erdoğan, who rarely cares about criticism, cannot be reduced to mere reactions or election losses. These decisions coincide with the Biden administration’s attempts to put pressure on Netanyahu. The possible relocation of Hamas from Qatar to Türkiye or reports that the International Criminal Court may issue arrest warrants for Israeli leaders are also seen as maneuvers to dissuade Israel from entering Rafah and push for a ceasefire. Given Türkiye’s efforts to attract investors, raise funds and get off the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), cutting off trade with Israel and angering its Western friends may be the last thing on Erdoğan’s mind. Without coordination with the US, Erdoğan’s embargo on Israel makes little sense. The reaction of the US State Department to the embargo was limited to the statement, “Both are allies and we encourage them to resolve their differences.” This points to the possibility of a compromise.  

Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan met with US Deputy Undersecretary of State John Bass on April 15 before travelling to Doha to meet with Hamas Political Bureau Chairman Ismail Haniyeh. According to the information I obtained from sources close to AKP, the meetings with the Hamas delegation took place with the knowledge of the US. What’s more, the US State Department’s Counter-terrorism Coordinator Elizabeth Richard was in Ankara on April 22. The Turkish Ministry of Commerce states that the measures will remain in effect until an immediate ceasefire is declared in Gaza and a sufficient and uninterrupted flow of humanitarian aid is allowed. It would be assertive to say that Erdoğan is willing to pay the price and go all the way. Although Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who described the decision as “dictator behavior”, accused Türkiye of violating their agreements and said that they would take the necessary steps, it is evaluated that Ankara can overcome this issue without too much damage.

The Tradition of Relations with Israel: Consistency in Inconsistency 

While the embargo is seen as a move to squeeze Israel, Erdoğan’s footsteps since October 7 define a double game. Türkiye’s Palestinian contradiction has been on record since the moment Ankara sided with the Western camp in the Cold War equation. In parallel with the Truman Doctrine, Türkiye had a major role in the operations to reshape the Middle East.

Having joined the World Bank and the IMF in 1947, and the Marshall Plan in 1948, Türkiye’s decision to become the first Muslim country to recognize Israel in 1949 was in line with its new position. This decision reinforced the feeling of “abandonment” among the Arab peoples who showed national resistance against colonialism in the former Ottoman geography.

Another shock was that Türkiye sided with France against the independence of Algeria in 1955, and abstained from voting in 1958, while hoping to join the European Economic Community. Military intervention attempts in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon during the Adnan Menderes period also increased Turkish-Arab alienation. Türkiye was seen as the “Trojan Horse” of Western colonizers during these periods.

Türkiye’s isolation on Cyprus from 1964 and then-US President Lyndon Johnson’s threatening letter pushed Ankara to improve relations with the Arabs. It tried to balance the disappointment of the Arabs by siding against Israel during the 1967 and 1973 wars. The importance of relations with the Arabs increased in parallel with the crisis triggered by the Arab League’s oil embargo against countries supporting Israel in 1973.

However, tensions with Iraq and Syria over the sharing of the Euphrates and Tigris waters, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) protection from Damascus, the lack of support from the Arab world on the Cyprus dispute, and the search for greater complicity in American interventionism caused a cooling in Arab-Turkish relations again, while rapprochement with Israel gained momentum in the 1990s. The military-security cooperation agreements signed with Israel in 1994 and 1996 were a radical departure from the attitude towards Palestine in the 1970s. Israel was now Türkiye’s partner in the field of defense. The partnership with Mossad in the field of intelligence has already existed since the days when Turkish leftists in Palestinian camps in Lebanon were being hunted down.

The signing of the cooperation agreement in the field of military training during the rule of Necmettin Erbakan, who was anti-Israel-US-EU, has gone down in history as the “terrible contradiction” of political Islamists. Although Erdoğan is seen as the most pro-Palestinian leader in discourse, he actually represents continuity in the state. Nevertheless, the temporary embargo broke the tradition that trade with Israel was unaffected by diplomatic or political tension. Erdoğan may look forward to the slightest change in the situation in Gaza to reverse this step that appeases his Palestine-sensitive base.

Dual-Use Politics

Erdoğan’s glorifying the Palestinian flag and collaborating with Israel is the result of a dual-use policy. Erdoğan’s role in distancing the Syrian administration from Iran and reconciling it with Israel hit a wall with Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Gaza in 2008-2009. Erdoğan showed his disappointment at the World Economic Forum in Davos when he told Israeli President Shimon Peres “One Minute! You know how to kill. ” He also downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel after the 2010 raid of the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla in which nine Turkish citizens were killed.

However, Erdoğan did not deviate from the line that separated business from politics; he showed his pragmatic side by closing the Mavi Marmara case in the Turkish judiciary in exchange for compensation. Tensions with Israel were again renewed in 2017 after the US recognized Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of Israel. However, Erdoğan showed that he would prioritize interests above all else by normalizing relations with Tel Aviv in 2022 once again in order to disrupt the energy equation in the Eastern Mediterranean that was against Türkiye.

During the UN General Assembly on September 20, 2023, Erdoğan invited Netanyahu to visit Ankara. While Erdoğan was impatient to add energy partnership to the new page, his calculations were overturned by the Al-Aqsa Flood. He was hoping that an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement would have a positive effect on relations with the Biden administration. To that end, his polite expulsion of Haniyeh from Istanbul on October 7 reflected his priority to deflect criticism and preserve relations with the Western camp.

However, Erdoğan’s subsequent embrace of Hamas was further reflecting the AKP’s opportunist and inconsistent policy. Türkiye is the second most important channel after Qatar in pressuring Hamas to accept the terms of the ceasefire. In addition, the Turkish government has long been suggesting that Hamas should give up armed resistance and become like Al-Fatah within the framework of “recognizing Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders”.

During Fidan’s meeting with Hamas in Doha on April 17 and the subsequent hosting of the Hamas delegation by Erdoğan in Istanbul on April 20, the goal of transforming Hamas to say goodbye to weapons was emphasized. This is news that the US also wants to hear. According to the information I have obtained, if the ceasefire in Gaza and the transformation of Hamas had yielded the desired results, Erdoğan’s White House meeting with Biden, scheduled for May 9th, would probably not have been postponed.

Despite the perception that “protecting Hamas would be an unacceptable contradiction for a NATO country”, Erdoğan’s Gaza diplomacy is not progressing to a level that will shake the bridges with the West. In his speech on May 6, Erdoğan claimed, “We stopped export and import transactions with Israel… Türkiye is one of the countries that passed the Gaza test most successfully.”

Erdoğan, who has not taken any decision that would pressure Israel in the last seven months, is doing what he knows best: Misleading, deceiving, floating to the top like olive oil and getting the upper hand, and using all kinds of tactics to ensure political dominance. If companies tied to the AKP have a share in the reconstruction of Gaza, and Türkiye is included in an international force that will guard Israel, Erdoğan’s Gaza diplomacy will achieve its goal.

Fehim Tastekin

Fehim Tastekin is a Turkish journalist specializes in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He is the author of several books on Syria, Kurds and Islamic movements.

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