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Can the Turkish regime absorb the opposition to Israel’s war?

Middle East & North Africa

In early January 2024, Turkey witnessed some of the most crowded mass demonstrations against Israel in the entire world. Government-friendly business associations were among the main organizers of these demonstrations. In the weeks that followed, Turkey would also step up to become one of the few countries that backed South Africa’s legal case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). As all this was happening, however, Turkey was simultaneously fueling the Israeli war machine through steel, chemical, and energy exports. Parsing Turkey’s precise contribution to Israeli war capacity is, of course, a difficult endeavor. That said, there are grounds in thinking the contribution significant. After all, close to 70% of Israel’s steel, a critical component in virtually every armament, comes from Turkey.

In view of Turkey’s material complicity in the Israeli war on Gaza, how to explain the state’s engagement with the mass protests and actions at the ICJ? Is this outright hypocrisy, as the government’s critics claim? Or is it instead part of a master-plan through which Turkey will ultimately gain the strength to stop Israel’s excesses, as pro-Erdoğan accounts hold?

The answer is not straightforward. Just as the posture of the governing party AKP is affected by Turkey’s entrenched and contradictory location within world imperialism and regional balances, it is also affected, and rendered more complex, by the AKP’s Islamist roots and complex relations with popular mobilization. As such, the current Turkish regime cannot be seen merely as a bulwark of NATO domination in the region: Insofar as it is transformed by and accountable to Islamist movements, it is also an unpredictable partner for the West and Israel. If Erdoğan’s Turkey helps perpetuate Israel’s occupation, then, the double character of his regime—and the internal tensions it creates—means the possibility of countervailing interventions cannot be ruled out.

Twin bastions of Cold War imperialism

The necessary point of departure for discussing Turkey’s relations with Israel are the Cold War and the character of the country’s integration into world capitalism.

Kemal Atatürk’s premature Third Worldism could not be sustained for long and quickly mutated into subservience. This transition started with the rule of Kemalists themselves in the 1940s before accelerating in the 1950s by way of the center-right’s reaction to Kemalism. Ensconced thereafter in a subordinate position within the global economy while motivated to jury-rig higher levels of welfare, Turkey would famously experience periodic financial crisis over the decades that followed. Its political leadership, meanwhile, would accept the need of staying on-side with the United States-led free world, to whom it could turn for lines of credit. 

Turkey recognized Israel in early 1949 and bilateral relations were strong across the 1950s: More than facilitating trade, military and intelligence cooperation were established in these years. At a number of critical junctures in the 1950s, moreover, Turkey also took the bold step of standing with Israel in the full light of day. In 1951, Turkey backed Israel after Egypt prevented Israeli ships from using the Suez Canal and in 1954, Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes called for region-wide recognition of Israel. Henceforth, some frictions emerged, it should be said. On the whole, however, Turkey remained friendly with Israel, if less publicly than in the past. Turkey might have ceased issuing pro-Israel statements following the Suez Crisis of 1956 and made efforts toward rhetorically aligning itself with the Arab states; nevertheless, as it was doing so, its Prime Minister was meeting with Ben Gurion and the Iranian Shah behind closed doors to secretly work out the terms of a “Peripheral Alliance” for constructing a non-Arabic bloc in the Middle East. Note that the USA, seeking to combat the rise of anti-imperialism in the region—a force which had concentrated mostly among the Arab states of the time—supported this prospective alliance.[1]

As the years turned to the 1960s and 1970s, Ankara would largely continue the same two-step. Turkey supported the Arab states in the disastrous 1967 war, and commerce with Arab countries grew considerably stronger in and around the same time (especially after the oil crisis of 1973). Turkey even lent its vote to a UN resolution equating Zionism with racism during the period in question. Throughout, however, bilateral trade with Israel was maintained and even when relations between the two states appeared to reach a nadir—as was the case during left-populist Bülent Ecevit’s short reign in the 1970s—trade and military cooperation persisted. Furthermore, there is speculation (and some evidence to warrant it) that intelligence sharing-cum-collaboration proceeded without interruption: Turkey and Israel may have cooperated during the Cyprus crisis[2] and once Turkish[3] and Kurdish[4] anti-imperialist militants began receiving training in Palestinian camps in the 1960s, there is evidence to suggest that the two countries’ intelligence services worked together to put an end to these arrangements. Upon the close of the Cold War, a fleeting opportunity for restructuring bilateral relations with Israel was presented to Turkey. It was not taken, though, and as the 1990s moved on, Turkey actually pivoted in the opposite direction: A “golden decade” of relations with Israel ensued.[5]

Absorbing the opposition to Israel: the AKP’s ledger

Erdoğan visited Israel in 2005, fostering hopes among parties on both sides that this golden decade might extend despite the Islamic roots of Turkey’s new governing party AKP. As it played out, such hopes wound up dashed, initially as result of the destruction wrought through Israel’s 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. At the World Economic Forum in 2009, Erdoğan publicly rebuked Israel’s president Shimon Peres’ framing of Cast Lead by interrupting his speech with the interjection “one minute,” a phrase which thereafter came to symbolize anti-Western feelings in the region at large. Diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel quickly deteriorated in the aftermath. With tensions already intensifying, the Israeli military’s violent confrontation with Turkish activists a few months later then took things to a whole new level.

Regarding the particulars of the confrontation, it came about when IHH (“Humanitarian Relief Foundation”), an Islamist aid organization attempted to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza through delivering aid by sea. What is known beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Israeli forces stormed and attacked the ship leading the aid flotilla (the Mavi Marmara) and ultimately killed nine activists onboard. Speculation regarding the potential involvement of the Turkish government in organizing IHH’s anti-blockade action abound through the present day. Be that as it may, it is clear that the IHH was and is a deeply rooted movement organization with at least partially autonomous leaders and activists and a very large donor and member base. And it was the murder of their activists, rather than any hard feelings left over from Davos, which made restoring a healthier diplomatic relation exceedingly tricky. After the bloody incident, the rulers of the two countries couldn’t simply swallow their words and pride and move on. For Erdoğan, the Mavi Marmara incident became a useful device for sustaining AKP hegemony at home: Keeping it in the discourse and seeking recognition if not legal satisfaction in international fora therefore had its utility. Cynics or not, Erdoğan and his party also had to be responsive to the IHH leaders, who leveraged both informal lobbying and public criticism to force the AKP to stick to an anti-Israel line.

In 2013, Israel apologized and promised to compensate the families of the activists killed on the Mavi Marmara. With the IHH still alluding to the AKP’s softness on Israel through 2014, though, this apology could not yet bring about an immediate diplomatic thaw.[6] Alas, conditions shifted in the months that followed, probably due to backdoor dealings between the governing party, Israel, and IHH. With the IHH agreeing to stay quiet, ambassadors would be reinstated in November 2016. A monkey wrench was thrown into the mix by the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in 2017. Regardless, by 2018, Turkish and Israeli ambassadors were back at their respective posts in Ankara and Tel Aviv once again and while full diplomatic relations were not quite restored, embassies were functioning as usual.   

Building on these foundations, a proper upswing in Turkish-Israeli relations commenced in 2021. Not only did high level official visits resume, but intelligence cooperation was publicly recognized: the Israeli foreign minister even took the bold step of thanking the Turkish services for preventing an Iranian action against Israelis.[7] Come 2022’s end, diplomatic relations were fully restored (after a ten-year break) and the Israeli President Isaac Herzog was making a state visit to Ankara. In September 2023, Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even met in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations’ General Assembly. This all transpired, mind you, despite Israel’s increasingly violent and repressive approach to Palestinians, be they in the West Bank, Gaza, or inside Israel’s 1948 territory. And this all transpired despite the most extreme rightwing government in the history of Israel coming to power, its ambitions for settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing hardly disguised.

Turkish-Israeli trade under the AKP

Trade after October 7th

After the horrors of Israel’s response to October 7th quickly came into view, Erdoğan—recent history notwithstanding—predictably sought to position himself as the guardian of Gaza. As he was doing so, however, journalists, politicians, and social media began disclosing and circulating information regarding ongoing trade links between Turkey and Israel. In the aggregate, the liberal-Islamic opposition daily Karar and a handful of other sources have reported that trade with Israel actually increased after October 7th.[9] (The government denies these claims.[10]). In the minutiae of trade exchanges, more politically compromising information has come out, too. At the forefront of this was social media reporter Metin Cihan. Throughout the fall, Cihan documented trade deals allegedly involving Erdoğan’s family and others involving companies run by prominent Islamist businessmen. Such revelations were considered extremely sensitive by the government and prompted the expected response: Though already in exile due to judicial authorities targeting him with previous probes, Cihan is currently under investigation for claims made against Erdoğan’s son, specifically, that the latter has maintained trade relations with an Israeli counterpart after October 7th.[11] Then in December 2023, media investigations turned the spotlight onto Turkey’s export of weaponry to Israel. In its “refutation” of these accusations the next month, the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) actually partially confirmed their veracity: According to TÜİK, Turkey had, up and through the last month for which data was available (November 2023), been providing weapons and weaponry parts to Israel, but only items intended for personal (non-combat) use. Insofar as armed Israeli settlers regularly use their personal weapons to target Palestinian civilians, the qualifier noted by TÜİK was hardly the coup government officials may have thought.[12] Indeed, anti-war organizations in Turkey are still demanding an end to these exports.

The AKP’s Line on trade with Israel

The business association MÜSİAD is at the core of the ongoing controversy over trade, unsurprising, perhaps, given its links both to the AKP and to Israel. Though one of the main organizers of the mass demonstrations against the war on Gaza, MÜSİAD’s association members rank amongst the leaders of Turkish trade with Israel. Since the trade controversy erupted, the association has attempted to muddy the water by claiming that the final destination of member exports are the occupied Palestinian territories, rather than Israel. As they present it, the relevant exports are only classified as trade with Israel because all trade to Palestine must first run through Israeli customs authorities.

MÜSİAD’s assertions strain credulity for any number of reasons. To begin, over the last decade, the AKP and its allies have blocked a number of efforts from parliamentarians and civil society organizations aimed at obligating that companies and government disclose more details regarding bilateral trade with Israel. The regime extended its de facto embargo on Israel-related trade information in the aftermath of October 7th, too.[15] As is such, by the hand of MÜSİAD’s own political sponsor, there is no way of confirming the association’s claims. A strange coincidence, to say the least. Furthermore, before October 7th, the Erdoğan government and many of the Islamic companies which rally under MÜSİAD’s banner were none too shy in boasting about increased trade with Israel. In late 2022, for example, the (conservative-led) association of steel exporters proudly announced that not only did they provide 65% of Israel’s steel, but intended to soon increase their market share.[16] In early 2023, meanwhile, the Turkish state’s official news agency covered an enthusiastic meeting in Tel Aviv which involved 20 Turkish and 100 Israeli firms. Organized by an association on whose board the prominent conservative businessman Murat Kolbaşı sits, the participants at the conference discussed ways to increase Turkey’s $400 million annual export of glassware to Israel.[17] On these occasions and others when state or MÜSİAD-aligned business took to bragging pre-October 7th, moreover, rarely (and weakly) did anyone add a comment on the final destination of exports being occupied Palestine: Such a specificity was added only after the government and Islamic businesses came under criticism following Israel’s late 2023 assault on Gaza.

Also eating into MÜSİAD’s claim is the praise that Israel showers on many-a-Turkish company.[18] Israel’s regular feting of İÇDAŞ—a steel exporter, member of MÜSİAD, and the largest Turkish exporter to Israel—is a case and point in these regards: It beggars belief that the Israeli state would celebrate the firm if its products were being used to develop Palestinian infrastructure or improve Palestinian welfare. The composition of Turkish exports to Israel (primarily steel, other metals, chemicals, automotive, and electronics) is not suggestive of a secret trade relation with Palestine, either. Due to Israeli restrictions on imported materials, Palestinian industry—the only sector that would have use for most of Turkey’s exports—has been dedeveloped considerably. It could never absorb the amounts of steel and chemicals in question.

Mass mobilization after October 7th

As the Mavi Marmara incident demonstrated long ago, Turkey’s sustenance of the Israeli economy under the AKP can proceed in the face of mass mobilization against the Turkey-Israel bilateral relation. More than that, one could argue that AKP-managed commercial relations with Israel might even require such a mass mobilization, provided that the party is able to keep things from boiling over while credibly positioning itself amongst the anti-Israel camp.

This might seem a difficult trick to pull in the current moment, though it would be unwise to underestimate the AKP after all these years in power. Up to this point, the key for the AKP has been its handling of the autonomous though hitherto controllable civic constituents of its far right bloc. While the autonomy of these actors has created occasional problems for the AKP (see: the Mavi Marmara activists’ pressure on the Israel relationship), this same feature can be equally beneficial for the party. When the riding of popular energies becomes useful for advancing the party’s future, for instance, the autonomy of far right civil society allows it—and with one step’s removal, the AKP—to more ably mobilize the passions of the street. The civil society’s controllability has its obvious uses as well. On the one hand, it allows the AKP to pursue its own prerogatives in conducting state affairs. On the other, it ensures the party can prevent the emergence of a revolutionary Islamism from below. Though time will tell, the flexibility the AKP gains through its relation with a semi-autonomous far right civil society could afford it an advantage over classical fascist regimes. Though the latter had more organized, ideologically committed, and violence-prone masses at its beck and call, the room to maneuver of those regimes was more limited, and their need to feed the base more constant, than is the case for the AKP.

That the AKP remains subject to degrees of pressure from its civic constituencies means that the course of the future cannot be easily plotted. Some of this pressure led the Turkish government to delist Israel as a primary export target at the end of January 2024. One implication of the decision is that the state is no longer committed to protecting involved businesses if “complications” arise.[19] Pro-government columnists have published pieces calling for trials against companies trading with Israel in recent times as well.[20] Such pieces talk loosely of “global companies,” a label meant to implicate the mostly Istanbul-based fraction of capital that has historically opposed Erdoğan rather than his allies in MÜSİAD. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to imagine a heightening of popular pressure leading to the widening of the net, and some AKP cronies getting swept up in the process. IHH president Bülent Yıldırım seemed to have expressed an interest in just that during a speech at a mass rally in early February. Critics of IHH have pointed out Yıldırım’s penchant for big words and little follow through. Nevertheless, the articulation of a harder line on Israel by an influential member of pro-AKP civil society points to the dangers of Erdoğan’s strategy on mass mobilization.[21]

Independent popular challenges to the Turkish-Israeli relation


If playing with dynamite, the AKP’s harnessing of mass mobilization has undoubtedly paid domestic dividends to date. With local elections coming up, the use of this tactic for billowing the party’s sails should be expected to continue.

Looking abroad, does the party have the capacity to transpose its national formula—talking harsh and mobilizing mass actions against Israel while sustaining the latter’s wars through commerce—to the wider Middle East? To wit, will the AKP be able to absorb anti-war energy for a capital and commerce-friendly reconstruction of international relations throughout the region? The intensity of the anger out there suggests any regionalization of the Turkish formula is extremely unlikely. Indeed, the most likely outcome for Turkey when it comes to Palestine may well be irrelevance: The combination of anti-Israel rhetoric with enduring exports to the country look to have alienated all parties. The West has unambiguously sidelined Turkey within its shuttle diplomacy, as was made most plain during Blinken’s 2024 visit to the Middle East. In the final instance, though, should that be the extent of the cost suffered by Erdoğan for engaging in his traditional two-step with Israel, one can trust irrelevance is a price he will be happy enough to pay.

[1] Jacob Abadi, 1995, “Israel and Turkey: From Covert to Overt Relations.” Journal of Conflict Studies 15/2: 104-128.

[2] Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, 1987, The Israeli Connection: Who Israel Arms and Why, Pantheon.

[3] Umut Uzer, 2021, “The Fascination of the Turkish Left with Palestine: “The Dream of Palestine”,” The Journal of the Middle East and Africa 12/2: 181-202.

[4] Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya, 2015, “The “Palestinian Dream” in the Kurdish context,” Kurdish Studies 3/1: 47-63.

[5] Jonathan Ghariani, 2024, “Turkish-Israeli relations: ‘the golden years’, 1991–2000,” Israel Affairs 30/1: 5-24.

[6] For more details regarding this back-and-forth between the AKP and IHH, and the history and structure of the relations between these two entities, see Tuğal, Caring for the Poor, 2017, Routledge, pp. 195-209.

[7] Associated Press, “Israeli FM thanks Turkey for foiling attacks on Israelis,” June 23, 2022.

[8] Fatma Sarıaslan, 2023, “Turkish Israeli economic relations in the new normalisation environment,”Israel Affairs.

[9] Turkish Minute, “Turkish exports to Israel rose by 34.8 pct from November to December,” 4 January 2024.

[10] Seda Tolmaç, “Ticaret Bakanlığı, İsrail’e ihracatın arttığına ilişkin iddiaların doğru olmadığını bildirdi,” aa.com.tr, 4 January 2024.

[11] Hikmet Adal, “Journalist in exile: ‘Turkey makes statements against Israel but imposes no sanctions’” bianet.org, 30 November 2023.

[12] Sol, “Türkiye Barış Komitesi: Türkiye’den İsrail’e silah ihracatı derhal durdurulmalıdır,” 14 February 2024.

[13] Artı Gerçek,“Ticaret Bakanı’ndan İsrail açıklaması: Ticareti devlet değil özel şirketler yapıyor,” 15 December 2023.

[14] Cihan Tuğal, 2023, “Politicized Megaprojects and Public Sector Interventions: Mass Consent Under Neoliberal Statism.” Critical Sociology 49/3: 457-473.

[15] BirGün, “”Bilal Erdoğan’ın gemileri” sorusu, Meclis Başkanı’na takıldı,” 5 January 2024.

[16] Mehmet Fatih Erdoğdu, Mücahit Aydemir, “İsrail’in çelik tercihi Türkiye oldu,” aa.com.tr, 19 September 2022.

[17] Uğur Aslanhan, “İsrail züccaciyede Türkiye’yi tercih etti,” aa.com.tr, 2 March 2023.

[18] Israeli Foreign Trade Administration, “İsrail – Türkiye Ticaret Ödülleri Sahiplerini Buldu,” May 2017.

[19] Toi Staff, “Turkey delists Israel as favored export target amid tension over Hamas war,” Times of Israel, 22 January 2024.

[20] Yaşar Süngü, “Şirketler de yargılanacak,” Yeni Şafak, 27 January 2024.

[21] See “Replies” to the post: https://twitter.com/TurkishIndy/status/1753896271234896144.