Is Gaza Really a Matter of Cross and Crescent for Turkey?

November 17, 2023
by Enes Esen, published on 17 November 2023
Is Gaza Really a Matter of Cross and Crescent for Turkey?

President Erdoğan has finally sharpened his criticism against Israel. In a speech delivered in parliament to his fellow party members this week, Erdoğan portrayed the events in Gaza as a matter of cross and crescent, drawing parallels to the Crusades that ravaged the Levant in the Middle Ages. Moreover, he not only labeled Israel as a terror state committing genocide, but also reiterated that Hamas is not a terrorist organization. He stated, “We will never shy away from voicing the truth that Hamas members, protecting their lands, honor, and lives in the face of occupation policies, are resistance fighters, just because some people are uncomfortable with it.” It seems that his fierce rhetoric is mostly about boosting his popularity before the upcoming local elections. Therefore, it remains unlikely that Ankara will take severe measures to hurt Israel.

Erdoğan's shift in tone was not entirely unexpected. As InstituDE member Tekineş pointed out, while everything seemed calm in Ankara during the early stages of the war, a policy change was always a possibility for Erdoğan, given the increasing tension and significant civilian losses. In other words, this shift of tone is more aligned with the growing anti-Israeli sentiment in Turkey with the war than how Erdoğan perceives the assault on Gaza.

The local elections in Turkey will take place in March 2024. The AKP has already launched political campaign to win back the most important metropolitans of Turkey that it lost in 2019, namely Istanbul and Ankara. In the same speech where he accused Israel of committing genocide, Erdoğan declared, “We will deliver all our metropolitans, particularly Istanbul and Ankara, back to their real owners in the local elections.” The real owner is no one else than himself and he wants them back. These two cities alone are home to more than 22 million people, a quarter of Turkey’s population. Their local governments employ tens of thousands of people and provide social assistance to millions. Besides, the mayors of these cities are always considered potential candidates for the Turkish Presidency. Controlling these metropolitans will also be crucial in the next presidential elections. If using strong language against Israel helps Erdoğan secure more votes, he will not hesitate to do so.

Furthermore, despite Erdoğan’s fierce rhetoric, Turkey has refrained from taking action that would undermine the Israeli government, with the notable exception of Prime Minister Netanyahu. This is also a calculated move. The Turkish government, not unlike its many Western counterparts, anticipates that Netanyahu's political career will not survive this war. Hence, Erdoğan believes that a targeted criticism against Netanyahu will not lead to political repercussions but will enhance his image as a champion of the Palestinian cause.

In this vein, Erdoğan stated, "We face a genocide. At this moment, thousands of attorneys are taking necessary steps at the ICC in The Hague to declare it as such." In line with this declaration, a former lawyer and two attorneys from the AKP submitted a petition to initiate legal proceedings against Netanyahu at the International Criminal Court (ICC). They only called for Netanyahu to be tried for "crimes such as war, genocide, and a crime against humanity in full view of the world." While it may seem that these lawyers acted independently, it is highly likely that their actions were closely coordinated with the AKP board. The selective targeting of Netanyahu for trial, excluding other members of the Israeli cabinet, suggests Ankara's perception that confronting Netanyahu carries less risk. It's noteworthy that Turkey is not a party to the ICC, and the court does not initiate investigations based on petitions from third countries. Therefore, the petitioning of the ICC appears to be a symbolic move, possibly intended to make a political statement rather than achieve legal action.

Lastly, if the Turkish government were genuinely intent on hampering Israeli war efforts, it could disrupt the shipment of Azerbaijani oil to Israel. Approximately 40 percent of Israel's oil needs are supplied by Azerbaijan through Turkey. In return, Israel accounted for 69 percent of Azerbaijan's major arms imports between 2016 and 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI). Pressuring Azerbaijan to stop shipments will be unproductive, given the reciprocal nature of their relationship. However, Turkey could potentially halt oil deliveries through its territory using technical excuses, as it recently did with Iraq. But, the oil business, which allegedly involves several high-level AKP officials, is too profitable to be turned down. Thus, it is safe to assume that the AKP government will never object to shipping oil through Turkish territory to Israel, whether it originates from North Iraq or Azerbaijan.

It is highly improbable that Ankara is in pursuit of a new clash of civilizations despite Erdoğan’s claims. His shift of tone is more about gaining domestic support than a genuine shift in Turkey's foreign policy. This does not imply at all that Erdoğan is secretly in good terms with Israel. His hostile rhetoric is a natural outcome of the political Islamist upbringing in Turkey, where there is a prevailing sentiment of mistrust toward Jews, to say the least. Nevertheless, he is well aware that translating his views on Israel into action would come at a significant cost, considering the unequivocal support for Israel in the West. Therefore, Turkey is unlikely to exert significant pressure on the Israeli government beyond harsh verbal statements.

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