Turkey's Erdogan under increasing pressure from public to cut trade ties with Israel

Turkish government announces restrictions on exports, as protesters demand complete halt to economic relations

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a rally in solidarity with Palestinians, in Istanbul in October. Reuters
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Huseyin Arif Sariyasar attended his first protest aged 9, when his father, a rights activist, took him to a pro-Gaza demonstration in central Istanbul.

Now 24 and a history student, Mr Sariyasar is among a growing number of young Turks protesting against his country’s diplomatic and trade ties with Israel.

“After October 7 in particular, we started to protest Turkey’s ongoing relations with Israel,” Mr Sariyasar, a founding member in the A Thousand Youth for Palestine movement, which has organised protests across Turkey in recent weeks told The National. “Although the Turkish government is always talking about being pro-Palestine, and even though [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s position is a good thing in terms of international politics, we don't believe that he is sincere.”

There has been a bitter war of words between Mr Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past six months. Israel and Turkey – home to some Hamas leaders and vocally pro-Palestine – have withdrawn their respective ambassadors, without formally downgrading diplomatic ties.

Some Turkish airlines have cut direct flights to Tel Aviv and Israel has dropped several places in the trade rankings to become Turkey’s 13th largest export destination, down from 10th in 2022, according to the latest figures from the government statistics authority.

But Israel remains a significant market for Turkish firms. They exported goods worth $5.4 billion in 2023 – more than the value of goods sold to each of Bulgaria, China, Libya and Ukraine. Ankara also continues to facilitate the export of tens of thousands of barrels per day of Azerbaijani crude oil to Israel through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

The Turkey-Israel Business Council, a group formed in 1993 to promote trade ties between the two countries, includes firms selling everything from digital payments technologies to metal packaging.

Following local elections last month that saw Mr Erdogan lose votes to more conservative Islamist parties, Turkey’s leader has been under increasing pressure from the public to take more forceful action against Israel.

In recent weeks, pro-Palestine demonstrations – encompassing Islamists, communists and socialist Muslims – have grown in Turkey. This culminated last weekend in a protest on central Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue that saw protesters arrested.

The Turkish Trade Ministry announced last week restrictions on selling 54 item categories to Israel, including significant exports such as cement and steel, as well as aviation fuel.

But some Turkish activists said this did not go far enough, and were disappointed in their government for maintaining trade and diplomatic ties with Israel.

“We do not want trade to be restricted, we want it to end completely,” Mucahit Ozel, a 28-year-old visual communication design student who also protests with A Thousand Youth for Palestine, told The National. “Trade to Israel must be completely cut off.”

Shunning trade ties with Israel threatens long-term damage to Turkey’s reputation as a reliable business partner, and would damage Turkish firms engaged in business with Israel, other observers say.

Israeli officials and analysts see Turkey’s move to restrict imports of goods like cement and steel as risky, as this is cutting off a major source of foreign currency at a time when Ankara needs to boost its flagging economy.

Turkey’s Trade Ministry did not respond to questions asking about the estimated annual export value of the restricted goods, or exactly how the ban would be enforced. In a public statement it said that registration of export declarations for the restricted goods to Israel had been suspended as of April 9.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz said his country would “not condone the unilateral violation of the trade agreements and will take parallel measures against Turkey that will harm the Turkish economy”.

The move to restrict exports to Israel is as much about domestic politics as it is about Turkey’s position on the Gaza conflict.

In local elections last month, Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost votes in part to the conservative Islamist Yeniden Refah Partisi – the New Welfare Party. This was partly because of widespread discontent over the Turkish economy and partly because voters felt disheartened by what they saw as the AKP’s lack of action against Israel.

The trade restrictions appear to be a way for the Turkish government to show that it is serious about people’s concerns over Israel, while not cutting off all ties with the country.

“He [Mr Erdogan] is trying to neutralise the New Welfare Party,” Dr Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey expert at Tel Aviv University told The National. “The [local election] results are very bitter for him. So, he needs to mend the damage.”

It will take a lot for the AKP to convince very conservative parts of the Turkish society, who accuse the party of valuing business over defending other Muslims.

“The Turkish government only talked about Palestine as an election and propaganda tool. It preferred commercial trade, including jet fuel, which continued until the election, to standing by the oppressed,” Ozcan Yildirim, a Salafi preacher from Konya, a religious city in central Turkey told The National.

The Turkish government has provided significant aid to Gaza and treated dozens of Palestinians in Turkish hospitals.

Mr Sariyasar is not hopeful that pro-Palestine protests will force the Turkish government’s hand over Israel. But he does believe that they are making the general population more aware of, and frustrated about, the Turkey-Israel ties. Protesters are not anti-AKP as such, he stressed, but against allowing continued ties with Israel.

“I'm not optimistic in terms of the government side, but I am trying to be optimistic about the people’s demands, because now most people are aware of these issues,” he said.

“People are saying, ‘now you are banning trade. If you can do that, why didn't you do it before?’”

Additional reporting by Kerem Yalciner

Updated: April 15, 2024, 9:00 AM