What’s behind Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ‘firm’ support for Hamas?

World News

(JR) — Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assertion earlier this month that Turkey “firmly backs” Hamas was the culmination of months in which the Turkish president has lambasted Israel’s war in Gaza.

The feud between the two countries did not end there. Last week, Israel’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish envoy for a reprimand after Erdogan berated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said God would “make him miserable and curse him.” 

Israel’s foreign minister shot back on social media, “There is no God who will listen to those who support the atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by your barbaric Hamas friends. Be quiet and shame on you!”

Those public comments paint a picture of an acrimonious relationship between Israel and Turkey, but scholars say the reality is more complicated. Erdogan has spoken warmly about Hamas for decades and engaged in several high-profile diplomatic spats with Israel since coming to power more than 20 years ago. But at the same time, trade between the two countries is booming and their relations were warming up before Oct. 7.

“We know from the past, Erdogan always calls Israel a ‘terrorist state’ and a ‘genocidal state,’ yet business goes on with the state of Israel,” M. Hakan Yavuz, a professor of political science at the University of Utah and the author of 2021’s “Erdogan: The Making of an Autocrat,” told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Weeks after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack launched the war, killing some 1,200 and taking 250 hostages, Erdogan called Hamas a “liberation group.” Turkey has hosted senior Hamas figures before and after the attack, including leader Ismail Haniyeh, who Erdogan’s chief security adviser said “might have been” in Turkey on Oct. 7. During his speech earlier this month in Istanbul, Erdogan also said Netanyahu and his government “are writing their names next to Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, like today’s Nazis.” 

But last month, Turkey’s exports to Israel increased more than 20% to $422 million, surpassing the pre-Oct. 7 figure of $408.3 million, according to local reports. Israel ranked 13th on Turkey’s export list in 2023.

According to Yavuz, Erdogan is ramping up his pro-Hamas rhetoric ahead of Turkey’s local elections on March 31. Erdogan’s Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party is attempting to win back offices in Istanbul and Ankara, where the secular opposition Republican People’s Party took control in 2019, penetrating the president’s near-total grip on power.

Yavuz believes that Erdogan is making a play for votes with the Turkish public, which broadly sympathizes with the Palestinians and has been incensed by the bloodshed and reports of starvation in Gaza. More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, according to the health ministry of the Hamas-run enclave.

“This is an opportunist leader,” said Yavuz. “I don’t think he cares about Palestinians. He has been instrumentalizing the Palestinian cause for a long time.”

Before Erdogan came to power in 2003, Israel and Turkey had close diplomatic relations. Turkey was the first country in the region to recognize Israel’s sovereignty in 1949. For decades, the two states shared counterterrorism and intelligence efforts and built strong economic ties, including in trade and tourism. Even after Erdogan became prime minister, before later becoming president, he hosted then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. However, a year earlier, he signaled that Turkey was warming to Hamas by inviting then-leader Khaled Meshaal to visit.

The relationship between Israel and Turkey began to deteriorate after 2008, when Israel launched a military campaign against Hamas in Gaza in response to rocket fire. In January 2009, Erdogan stormed out of the World Economic Forum after clashing with Peres and vowed never to return to Davos. A year later, the relationship imploded when a Turkish ship led a flotilla of boats carrying volunteers and humanitarian aid to Gaza, challenging Israel’s naval blockade of the enclave. Israeli troops raided the ship and, amid clashes, killed nine Turks on board.

Netanyahu apologized for the incident in 2013, but tensions between the countries continued to fester during rounds of conflict between Israel and Gaza. In 2018, Israel killed more than 100 Palestinians during protests on the Gaza border. In retaliation, Turkey expelled its Israeli ambassador and Israel in turn ordered the Turkish consul general in Jerusalem to leave

The two countries again recalled their ambassadors following Oct. 7. Meanwhile, Turkish Jewish leaders have not publicly opined about the sparring between Netanyahu and Erdogan. The community’s organized leadership did not respond to a JR request for comment.

“I think they are all in hiding,” said Yavuz. “No one in today’s dominant political culture would go and say, ‘As a Jew, this is what I think.’ I think that’s out of the question in Turkey. The political environment is very anti-Jewish in Turkey today.”

Over the course of his decades in office, Erdogan has worked to legitimize the public’s perception of Hamas as a viable form of Palestinian leadership, according to Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and journalist from Turkey. Erdogan has openly supported the group and never categorized it as a terrorist organization, unlike the United States and the European Union. Many Turkish voters have followed his lead: A survey found that only 30% of respondents believe Hamas is a terrorist organization.

Unlike Yavuz, Aydintasbas argued in an interview with Brookings that the president’s pro-Palestinian position is driven more by personal convictions than by opportunism.

“There is no pragmatism there,” said Aydintasbas. “Erdogan sees it as his calling to take a position against what Israel is doing, even if the price is isolation. It is clearly personal, ideological, and near and dear to his heart.”

The Palestinian issue is also an important part of Erdogan’s ideology of neo-Ottomanism, said Aydintasbas. The president has built his political platform on the idea of reviving a Turkish empire in the Middle East akin to the one that existed prior to 1917. Key to that effort is representing dispossessed Muslim populations in the region, including the Palestinians, and standing opposed to the West and Israel.

But prior to Oct. 7, Erdogan had shown more openness to normalizing relations with Israel in recent years, as Turkey has struggled with economic difficulties and diplomatic isolation. The countries announced a full renewal of diplomatic ties in 2022. In Sept. 2023, weeks before the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, Erdogan and Netanyahu met for the first time in New York and agreed to visit each other’s countries soon. That’s unlikely to happen now, according to Yavuz.

“I think Turkish public opinion moved further against Israel during this war,” said Yavuz. “I think the trade and business relations will continue, but with the current public opinion, those relations are in danger as well.”