Can Erdogan keep up his Middle East balancing act?

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Israel-Palestine, Turkey

Under President Erdogan, Turkey is walking a fine line between strong domestic support for the plight of the Palestinians and ambitions to serve as a mediator between the warring parties on the international stage.

Palestinian students hold pictures of Tayyip Erdogan during his trip to the Gaza Strip, 13 September 2011.
Palestinian students hold pictures of Tayyip Erdogan during his trip to the Gaza Strip, 13 September 2011. Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

The event was billed as a ‘mass rally’: a gathering in one of Istanbul’s biggest meeting grounds to show support for Gaza. The demonstration on 15 October was the latest in a string of pro-Palestine events held in Turkey since Hamas’s attack on Israel. The issue is one of the few that Turks are still able to protest over; in recent years almost every gathering, from Women’s Day marches and Pride to student protests, have been banned and violently quashed by the police. Palestine is different: Turks across the political divide, from conservatives to leftist Kurds, feel sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, and representatives of almost every major party have issued statements in support of Palestine over the past ten days. Yet the crowds at the pro-Palestine rallies represent a narrow slice of Turkey’s pluralistic society: ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims, who are emphatically antagonistic to both Israel and the US. Some were wearing headbands pronouncing support for Hamas, others waved banners damning the West. As the call to prayer sounded from nearby mosques, many spread cardboard on the grass and prayed.

Two historic shifts have converged in Turkey to make overt pro-Palestine protest the domain of a small part of the society: the rise of Hamas in Gaza, and the cultural empowerment of Turkey’s Islamists during President Erdogan’s two decades in power. Erdogan has made Palestine his personal cause, publicly berating Israeli Prime Ministers starting with Shimon Peres, whom he accused of ‘murder’ onstage at Davos in 2009. A year later, an aid flotilla to Gaza organised by a Turkish Islamic charity, the IHH, was stormed by Israeli commandos, who killed nine activists. Erdogan demanded that Israel be punished for the ‘bloody massacre’. Over the next decade, Israel’s relations with Turkey, once one of its few allies in the Muslim world, nosedived. In 2018 Turkey withdrew its ambassador, accusing the Israeli government of ‘genocide’. Diplomatic relations were only restored last year – and are now being tested again as Erdogan ramps up his rhetoric against Israel’s retributory offensive on Gaza. He is again accusing Israel of massacres.

Erdogan patronises Palestine for several reasons. Like almost all devout Muslims, his personal sympathies fall on the Palestinians’ side but the issue is a sure fire way to rouse passions at home. When Erdogan returned from Davos he was greeted by supporters on the runway, and he makes sure to mention Palestine in every campaign rally and victory speech. The particular form of Palestine solidarity that has been on display in Turkey in recent days is bound up with Erdogan’s own brand of politics.

Erdogan’s Islamism, like that of Hamas, stems from the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, an anti-Imperialist movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s. The Brotherhood wanted to kick the British out of the Middle East and establish a caliphate based on Muslim Sharia law. Its methods include social activism, charity, and violence, and as the old imperial powers moved out it made enemies instead of the secular, militaristic and dynastic regimes across the Middle East. A century on, its biggest target is Israel and its opposition to the Jewish state is laced with explicit antisemitism. The movement reached its nadir in the immediate wake of the Arab Spring, when Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood member, briefly became president of Egypt and Brotherhood-linked parties entered governments in Tunisia and Libya. Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister in that period, was the ideological purist in Erdogan’s party who pushed for Turkey to deepen its relations with the Islamic world. Erdogan saw an opportunity when Morsi was ousted by military coup in August 2013, and turned himself into a Brotherhood figurehead. He often flashes the Rabia, a four-fingered salute adopted by Morsi’s supporters. He has given succour to Brotherhood exiles from Syria, Egypt and Yemen, allowing them to resettle in Istanbul and set up media channels and think tanks. And he has built links with Hamas, repeatedly hosting the group’s leaders in Turkey and refusing to criticise its acts of terror.

Hamas was elected in Gaza in 2006, following years of bloody rivalry with its internal rival Fatah, a party rooted in secular nationalism – the original ideology of the Palestinian resistance. Fatah recognises Israel, although not as a Jewish state, and remains in control of the West Bank. Erdogan also maintains a strong relationship with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority. But it is Hamas’ radical Islamist version of the Palestinian struggle that has come to dominate the headlines and the focus of the pro-Palestine movement around the world. In Western countries, leftist groups are still willing to unite with Islamists at rallies, either not knowing or not caring about the violent expansionist and anti-semitic ideology that underpins their thinking. In Turkey, where the struggle between secularism and religious conservatism has become a defining part of 21st-century politics, that ideology is intolerable for most people: studies consistently show that only a small minority want to live in state based on Sharia law.

Erdogan is walking a tricky tightrope in this latest conflict. Since his narrow re-election in May he has been working to patch up relations with the EU and US, and leans heavily on Turkey’s role a mediating country in conflicts such as Ukraine to maintain his international relevance. He has offered to mediate in this conflict, too, and Turkish officials have claimed that he has been holding talks with Hamas to secure the release of Israeli hostages. He has spoken by phone with President Herzog, although not with Benjamin Netanyahu. Palestine, however, is a key part of his political identity, and with local elections due to be held in March, he needs to keep his conservative base engaged – particularly in Istanbul, which he is hoping to win back from the opposition.

To date, Erdogan has not been involved in the pro-Palestine rallies, which have been organised by Islamist foundations, including the IHH, and by fringe political parties, including the radical HUDA-PAR, which is in coalition with Erdogan’s party. Should the violence escalate, he may be forced to choose which is more important to him: maintaining his already shaky standing with the West, or sticking with the cause he has turned into his totem.


Hannah Lucinda Smith