Pariah or pioneer? Turkey has taken a bold stand against Israel’s war in Gaza

The invasion of Rafah could see other countries follow Ankara's lead

Demonstrators gather at Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul last week during a protest march in solidarity with Palestinians. Reuters
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Turkey’s anti-Israel turn happened much the way Ernest Hemingway described the onset of bankruptcy: “gradually, then suddenly.”

After months of denouncing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli aggressions in Gaza while quietly maintaining ties, Ankara started changing tack about a month ago.

In early April, Turkey halted the trade of more than 50 products to Israel that could have military uses, such as steel, fertiliser and rocket fuel. Two weeks later, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Hamas to the resistance movement that won Turkey’s independence a century ago, then welcomed Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to Istanbul.

Finally last week, the coups de grace. First, Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan told reporters Turkey would seek to become a co-plaintiff to South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. The next day, Ankara vowed to halt all trade with Israel until its government allowed uninterrupted aid deliveries into Gaza, becoming the first country to impose a full trade embargo on Israel for its war.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this decision. Israel and Turkey have had a free trade deal in place since the 1990s and their bilateral trade last year totalled nearly $7 billion, mainly Turkish exports. In addition, about 40 per cent of Israel’s annual oil consumption is Azerbaijani crude that is piped to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, then transferred to tankers for shipping.

If Turkey were to stop that oil in Ceyhan, Israel would be forced to quickly find an energy alternative or face severe consequences, putting additional pressure on the already under-fire Netanyahu government.

After last year’s promising rapprochement, Ankara has now put ties with Israel in a deep freeze. “This is how a dictator behaves,” Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz posted on X, referring to Mr Erdogan, “disregarding the interests of the Turkish people and businessmen and ignoring international trade agreements.”

Given Erdogan’s penchant for championing oppressed Muslims, the decision is probably also a nod to shifting geopolitical winds

As of Monday Israel was still assessing the reach of the embargo, but we should expect a strong response. Israeli officials have vowed to seek sanctions and urged the OECD to sanction Turkey. Israel could also move to block Turkish involvement in Eastern Mediterranean energy and keep Turkish contractors, who’ve done considerable work in Israel, out of the expected $40 billion worth of Gaza reconstruction.

The embargo may also irk Israel’s closest ally and Turkey’s Nato partner, the US. Some western analysts have already urged Washington to levy sanctions on Turkey and cancel the recently approved sale of F-16s. Despite these risks, Turkey’s leader may have seen continued trade with Israel as exacting too great a political cost.

Following recent municipal elections, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) woke on April 1 to find itself, for the first time in decades, the country’s second-most popular party after the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). This was largely because the Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP) came in a surprising third, drawing former AKP voters by hammering home the government’s contradictory position on Israel.

Most observers view the embargo as a capitulation to YRP and a youth-led protest movement. But Turkey’s next elections are not until 2028 and a late April poll showed most Turks – 52 per cent – believe that the AKP lost the vote because of economic issues.

It seems unlikely the AKP govt would choose to cut off this much-needed source of foreign funds, risking sanctions and further economic peril, for a potential political pay-off years down the road. Given Mr Erdogan’s penchant for championing oppressed Muslims, the decision is probably also a nod to shifting geopolitical winds.

As Israel begins its Rafah assault amid reports of famine and fears of mass displacement, global pressure on Israel to wind down its war has ramped up. Jordan and Bahrain have recalled their ambassadors, while Colombia, Bolivia and Belize have cut diplomatic ties. Washington remains committed to Israel, but the US, UK and Germany have expressed deeper criticism in recent weeks. Probably responding to growing pushback from fellow Democrats, President Joe Biden last week reportedly blocked a weapons transfer to Israel for the first time since October 7.

Non-state actors are also having their say. In January, the ICJ delivered what The Economist called a “stinging rebuke” to Israel over Gaza, and the International Criminal Court is now said to be mulling an arrest warrant for Mr Netanyahu. Under pressure from protesters, many US universities, including Ivy League schools known for producing top American officials, have begun to discuss cutting financial ties to Israel. [Fittingly, one of the student leaders negotiating with Columbia University is a Turkey-born master’s student in human rights.]

Thus, Ankara’s decision was of a piece with growing global condemnation and isolation of Israel. The move may also better position Turkey to host Hamas. Several reports suggest that the US wants Qatar to eject the group, which would then have to find a new home. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has been in Turkey since meeting Mr Erdogan and met several other political figures, hinting at a longer stay.

Regardless of the motivations, Ankara’s move is a clear criticism and a harsh punishment likely to undermine Israel’s war effort. Mr Erdogan said last week that in addition to forcing Israel to agree to a ceasefire, he hopes Turkey’s embargo can serve as an example.

Critics of Mr Erdogan and pro-Israel folk like to paint Turkey as morally bankrupt, while Palestinians and their supporters say much the same of Israel. One may now gain pariah status. Will other countries follow Turkey’s lead, or will the US and Europe show their embrace of Israel by finding ways to apply pressure on Ankara to reverse course?

Assuming Israeli forces enter and occupy Rafah, the answer may be yes, on both counts.

Published: May 07, 2024, 4:00 AM