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Turkey’s perspective on the Gaza war

14 Dec 2023

Turkey’s perspective on the Gaza war

14 Dec 2023


The conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip raised major concerns among stakeholders near and far about the possible spillover effects of the war on the regional order. The Middle East is a fragmented chessboard of shifting geopolitical sands along competing interests, religious and ethnic divisions, which also reflects the multipolarity of the international system in terms of power distribution, capabilities, and alliances. Türkiye stands as a key player in this conundrum and aims to establish itself as a stabilizing leader in the area, proposing its own axis and aiming at protecting its interests. 

The outbreak of Israeli-Hamas hostilities on 7 October 2023, has taken place at an unfortunate time for Ankara, when it had just put its political relations with Israel on a normalization track and achieved a modus vivendi toward traditional frictions with Tel Aviv while defending the rights of Palestinians, a historic workhorse in Turkish President Erdoğan’s political legacy. Türkiye’s stance toward Israel and Palestine is, indeed, an issue that, under the aegis of Erdoğan and his AKP-led government, has been characterized by ideology and a peculiar emotional feeling toward Arabs in the former Ottoman lands. To grasp the essence of Erdoğan’s decisions and approach in the Gaza conflict, it is crucial to examine both domestic and structural factors that contribute to Ankara’s policy prescription. 

Between normalization and crises 

History shows that normalization in Turkish-Israeli ties have been fraught with ups and downs. Bilateral diplomatic relations have experienced repeated and serious crises mainly due to Israel’s harsh stance toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.  Many people remember the incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 29 January 2009, when the then Prime Minister Erdoğan left an angry debate with the late Israeli President Shimon Peres, who refused to recognize the humanitarian drama created by IDF military operations in Gaza. 

This was followed by the immediate Turkish refusal by Israel to participate in NATO exercises scheduled for the same year. A few months later, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel, Danny Ayalon, insulted the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv, Oğuz Çelikkol, in front of the cameras by offering him a lower seat in the meeting room. Furthermore, Turkish-Israeli relations reached an all-time low when Israel attacked the Gaza Flotilla, or the Mavi Marmara, in international waters carrying humanitarian aid to break the embargo on 31 May 2010. 

Relations were partially restored in 2013 when, during former U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized on the telephone to Erdoğan and agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims. In return, Türkiye pledged to drop legal proceedings against Israeli officers responsible for boarding the Mavi Marmara, not to allow Hamas to operate from its territories, and to send humanitarian aid to Gaza through Israeli ports. For its part, Israel committed to let Türkiye build infrastructure necessary to improve living conditions in Gaza and to pay US$20 million as compensation to families of the victims on Mavi Marmara.[1] 

This temporary truce did not last long as tensions erupted when the U.S. administration under former President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2018. “Jerusalem is our red line”, Erdoğan reiterated, which has since become one of his political slogans.[2] At that time, Israel also sided with Greece and the Greek Cypriots in disputes over maritime borders and energy rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Then, in the era of reconciliation that started with the Abraham Accords (2020) and Al-Ula Summit (2021), Türkiye as a multi-aligned, hedging middle power, saw value in mending ties with regional actors and prioritized economic pragmatism and bridge-building over geopolitical saber-rattling that paved the way to re-normalization with Israel. 

The current crisis occurs at a historical moment when Ankara has focused on developing ties with regional partners for stability, both domestically and regionally. The revival of political relations with Tel Aviv was certainly due not only to regional urgencies but also to economic opportunities and security. Although relations were restored to ambassadorial level in August 2022 and Erdoğan met with Netanyahu for the first time on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last September, the party ended abruptly on 7 October 2023. 

After thunder comes rain 

Turkish President Erdoğan’s moderate stance in the first fifteen days following the Hamas attack in October and Israel’s subsequent reaction represented, in some respects, a new element in his traditional and poignant narrative, known for its condemnation of Tel Aviv and its dominant and prevaricating position toward the Palestinians. Türkiye displayed diplomatic moderation initially in the statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calling both parties “to act with restraint and avoid impulsive steps”, and stating that Türkiye is “always ready to contribute to the best of our ability to ensure that these developments can be taken under control before they escalate further and spread to a wider area.”[3] It also highlighted the vision toward “a two-state solution”. 

Ankara aims to capitalize on its leadership by building a positive momentum for mediation, not dissimilar to its past attempts in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, by positioning itself as a regional balancer and stabilizer. In this vision, there is no shortage of challenges in the complex network of relationships among the regional stakeholders and their perceptions of each other. To navigate this landscape, Türkiye seems to have re-embraced soft power outreach and a variant of the infamous “zero-problems with neighbors” policy of the mid-2000s to revamp its image as a benign actor in the hearts and minds of Arab people. 

But over time, and despite criticism, Erdoğan’s government has raised the bar by going beyond the call for calm and instead lent support toward the political arm of Hamas, not considering it as a terrorist group.[4] While political exponents of Hamas have found shelter in Türkiye, their deep relationship with Ankara, especially in the face of hostilities, has been assiduous and intense. Despite initial reports that Türkiye showed the door to Hamas senior officials, including Ismail Haniyeh, Turkish officials quickly denied the claim as mass pro-Palestinian protests were taking place in major cities across the country.[5] Hamas leaders allegedly carry Turkish passports, and their financial network has reportedly strong connections in Türkiye.[6] 

What position Türkiye will be in vis-à-vis its interlocutors once the dust settles remains to be seen. For a fact, Ankara dropped its initial balanced stance and condemned Israel’s disproportionate, indiscriminate response against the civilian population of Gaza. Also, unconditional U.S. bipartisan support for Tel Aviv and the presence of two carrier strike groups plowing the Eastern Mediterranean aggravated the Turkish reaction against what is perceived as Washington’s approval of Israel’s oppressive policies on Palestinians. Even though the U.S. does not want to be dragged into an untimely, protracted war in the Middle East before the presidential elections in 2024, its support for Israel’s security and territorial integrity remains rock solid. 

Many Turks on the street see this close U.S. support for Israel not as an attempt at conflict resolution but as an act of aggression that destabilizes the region. Due to double standards in the application of international law, there is no doubt about a growing disappointment toward the rules-based liberal world order led by the U.S. among the Global South. The immediate priority should, therefore, be to achieve a lasting ceasefire, open a humanitarian corridor, exchange prisoners, and in the long term, reconstruct Gaza. 

Türkiye’s change in rhetoric 

Türkiye is trying to tread a fine line of balance between adversaries in this war. There is reciprocal causation between international politics and domestic interests, such that decision-makers in the state play a complex “two-level game” to reach equilibrium between both spheres.[7] Although Turkish officials dovetail Erdoğan’s bitter criticism of Israel for domestic consumption, the government’s practice toward the U.S. and Israel essentially remains the same. 

Consider how Erdoğan’s ultra-nationalist coalition partner MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) leader Devlet Bahçeli lambasted Tel Aviv, saying, “The Turkish nation is reactive, distant, and angry against the evil games of Israel, its supporters, and their operations that rain down violence.”[8] Likewise, Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said, “It was not possible for us to act as if nothing was happening while nearly 13,000 of our Palestinian brothers were martyred in Gaza.”[9]  

It is true that a curtain has fallen between Ankara and Washington after U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit, who received a cold welcome from Hakan Fidan, let alone a chance to meet with Erdoğan.[10] The Turkish President also showed no restraint to demonstrate his frustration about developments in Gaza, pointing a finger against the U.S. and its European allies, suggesting that “It is easier to stop Israel if U.S. feels same way as we do to stop this bleeding wound”[11] and “Germany cannot criticize Israel because of the Holocaust.”[12] 

But conspicuously, deeds do not follow such words. There is no mention of measures that could be taken against Israeli interests, such as the possible deactivation of Kürecik X-Band NATO radar in eastern Türkiye, a downgrade in trade/economic relations, or the closing of airspace, ports, and other facilities to U.S. military assets. Türkiye runs a trade surplus with Israel with around US$10 billion in trade volume as of 2022 and is unlikely to wind it down apart from symbolic moves such as the cancellation of joint “gas exploration activities.”[13] To the contrary, Türkiye seeks the U.S.’s approval to receive F-16 Block-70 (V) upgrades, for which there is no doubt that the powerful Jewish lobby in Washington has a major say. Ankara is also careful not to upset the delicate balance in the Eastern Mediterranean and repeat the mistake of pushing Israel further into the arms of Greece and Greek Cypriots as was the case from 2010 to 2020. 

Although the extent of Turkish-Israeli relations influences ties between Ankara and Washington, the decision by the Turkish president to lift his veto on Sweden’s entry into NATO, a crucial dossier to the U.S. administration for its larger geostrategic positioning in the high north, does not seem to have relaxed the spirits. The Palestinian issue is very dear to the Turkish establishment and to a large part of Turkish civil society. It is almost a genetic component of the Turkish political and social synthesis, marking a point of continuity in the most recent political history: every time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensifies, Turkish opinion has sided in favor of the Palestinians. With unprecedented violence against civilians in the Gaza Strip this time, the frustration on the Turkish side has only grown exponentially. 

Still, such harsh rhetoric from Ankara, even if it scratches the surface, inevitably creates friction with much of the Western world, which saw Hamas as responsible for the vicious cycle of violence that started on 7 October. The most recent European Commission progress report on Türkiye 2023 points serious criticism at the Turkish government, saying that Ankara’s “rhetoric in support to Hamas following its attacks against Israel on 7 October 2023 is in complete disagreement with the EU approach.”[14] The word “rhetoric” is worth the emphasis here: as stated, when it comes to policy alignment with the EU-U.S. on Israel, the Erdoğan government is not very different from Western capitals. Türkiye differs only in its relationship with Hamas and mainly on a rhetorical level for domestic reasons, i.e., it “walks the walk” but sometimes refuses to “talk the talk” with the U.S/EU.  

Proposals for a settlement 

The activism of Turkish diplomacy, thanks in part to Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and President Erdoğan’s personal contacts, has led to the proposal of a quadripartite mediation mechanism, composed of two guarantor states for Israel and two for Palestine, which are supposed to work, first and foremost, for a sustainable, durable ceasefire agreement. This is an ambitious task, pivoting on the urgency of containing the bloodbath, guaranteeing the stability of the area, and avoiding dangerous regional drifts.[15] 

While there has been widespread support for the Palestinians and a firm condemnation toward Israel’s acts of violence in the media and civil society, Türkiye’s persistent aspiration to mediate the dispute is attributable to Ankara’s normalization and dialogue with its regional interlocutors since 2021. In line with what the Turkish policymakers define as a “balancing diplomatic act,”[16] Türkiye leveraged humanitarian aid and public diplomacy as symbols of its right-minded approach to Palestinians. 

Meanwhile, pro-government media framed protests outside Israeli missions in Istanbul and Ankara as a “rightful cause”[17] and presented the warm meeting between Biden and Netanyahu on headlines as “a war crime.”[18] Israel responded by recalling its diplomats from Türkiye “for security reasons”[19] and so did Türkiye shortly afterwards, citing the “humanitarian tragedy,”[20] and confirming their original nature of “ups and downs.” 

Considering international reaction and polarization positions on the issue, Erdoğan condemned Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and cancelled his visit to Israel.[21] His speech on 28 October political rally in Istanbul in support of Palestine, just the day before the centennial anniversary of the Turkish republic, saw the participation of over five million people, and the recall of Turkish diplomats to Ankara, has reshaped the bilateral ties. 

On 22 November, Israel and Hamas agreed to a prisoner exchange and a four-day halt to hostilities, raising a glimmer of hope to end the humanitarian catastrophe, but the Israeli government vowed to “continue the war” against Hamas until the release of all hostages.[22] In this tense atmosphere, since Türkiye has dropped its initial neutral position, or at least non-confrontational stance toward Israel, and openly sided with the Palestinians (read Hamas) in Gaza, it is unlikely to find support from the U.S. and EU, let alone Israel, to become a guarantor. 

As seen from the outcome of the Arab-Islamic summit in November, the call for an end to hostilities is more about symbolism, narrative, and diplomacy rather than substance. The 31-point joint declaration calls on the UN Security Council to take a decisive and binding decision, to monitor the media and initiate legal procedures to document war crimes for adjudication at the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Israel is not a party to. If Türkiye’s goal is still to return to pre-1967 borders and establish a Palestinian state with Eastern Jerusalem as its capital, that looks increasingly unlikely after the current crisis. The most feasible option is to “moderate” hard positions on each side, including sponsors of non-armed groups, and return to a broad dialogue after a ceasefire. 


The current crisis between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has placed Türkiye in a delicate position, given its recent efforts to normalize relations with Israel. The historical context of Turkish-Israeli relations, marked by crises and temporary truces, highlights the complex nature of the diplomatic landscape. President Erdoğan’s initial moderate stance calling for a two-state solution evolved into a more unequivocal alignment with the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, reflecting Türkiye’s historical affinity for the Palestinian cause. Despite the strong rhetoric condemning Israel’s actions, Türkiye’s actual policy remains nuanced, with limited concrete measures against Israeli interests, let alone any reaction to its main ally, the U.S. 

The proposed quadripartite mediation mechanism, while ambitious, faces challenges in gaining international support. The recent agreement between Israel and Hamas for a prisoner exchange and a temporary halt to hostilities offers a glimmer of hope, but Türkiye’s open support for Hamas may hinder its chances of becoming a guarantor. Still, the evolving dynamics in the region continue to underscore the complex interplay of domestic and international factors shaping Türkiye’s stance in this geopolitical conundrum and its desire for international mediation on the chessboard.

[1] Michalengelo Guida, “L’altalena delle relazioni turco-israeliane” (Rome, Italy: CeSPI, Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale, May 30, 2021),

[2] Ezzedine Said, “Thousands Mass at Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian Rally Called by Erdogan,” Times of Israel, May 18, 2023,

[3] “No: 247, 7 October 2023, Press Release Regarding the Latest Developments in the Context of Israel-Palestine / Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Republic of Türkiye: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 7, 2023,

[4] Tuvan Gumrukcu and Huseyin Hayatsever, “Turkey’s Erdogan Says Hamas Is Not Terrorist Organisation, Cancels Trip to Israel,” Reuters, October 25, 2023, sec. Middle East,

[5] i24NEWS, “Turkey Denies Showing Hamas to the Door,” I24news (blog), October 23, 2023,

[6] “Inside Hamas’s Sprawling Financial Empire,” The Economist, November 20, 2023,

[7] Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42, no. 3 (1988): 427,

[8] “MHP Genel Başkanı Bahçeli: İsrail onursuz saldırılarına derhal son vermeli – Son Dakika Haberleri,” Hürriyet, November 21, 2023,

[9] “Bakan Fidan: Gazze için İslam ülkeleri ellerindeki bütün diplomatik araçları kullanma yolunu tercih etmiş durumda,” AA (blog), November 11, 2023,

[10] “US Top Diplomat Blinken Meets Turkish FM for Tough Israel-Gaza Talks,” Al Jazeera (blog), November 6, 2023,

[11] Hande FIRAT, “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan’dan önemli açıklamalar: Gazze konusunda ABD ve Batı’da hava değişti,” Hürriyet, November 11, 2023,

[12] “In Berlin, Erdogan Says Germany Can’t Criticize Israel Because of the Holocaust,” Times of Israel, November 17, 2023,

[13] “Report: Turkey Suspends Gas Exploration Activities with Israel,” Bianet (blog), October 26, 2023,

[14] “Key Findings of the 2023 Report on Türkiye,” Text, European Commission – European Commission, November 8, 2023,

[15] “Türkiye Proposes Guarantor Formula for Israeli-Palestinian Issue: Turkish Foreign Minister,” AA (blog), October 17, 2023,

[17] “Binlerce Ankaralı ile İsrail büyükelçiliği önünde Gazze eylemi yaptı,” Sabah, October 18, 2023,

[18] DAILY SABAH [@DailySabah], “This Is a War Crime | Today’s Front Page Https://Dailysabah.Com/World/Mid-East/Proud-Biden-Backs-Israels-Account-of-Deadly-Gaza-Hospital-Strike Https://T.Co/Xx5lCFS8Ja,” Tweet, Twitter, October 19, 2023,

[19] “Israel pulls diplomats from Turkey to reassesses ties as Erdoğan blasts its ‘war crimes’,” Times of Israel, October 28, 2023,

[20] Giselle Ruhiyyih Ewing, “Turkey Recalls Ambassador from Israel,” POLITICO (blog), November 4, 2023,

[22] “Israel Names 300 Palestinian Prisoners, Mostly Teens, Who Could Be Freed in Hostage Deal,” November 22, 2023,

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