The Ankara-based MetroPoll found on Monday that 54% of Turkish citizens barely survive financially, while 26.6% cannot meet their basic needs such as nutrition and shelter. According to official data published on May 3, inflation in Turkey accelerated to 17.1% in April from 16.2% in March. The local currency, the lira, has lost nearly a third of its value since the beginning of 2020, skyrocketing the prices of imported goods. This economic crisis, along with an average of 18,000 COVID-19 cases and hundreds of deaths per day, with most experts disputing the official figures in the belief they are grossly underreported, reveals the dire domestic situation in Turkey.
Yet, despite the difficult situation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is attempting to emerge as the leader of global Islamic condemnation against Israel in the most recent flare up with the Palestinians.
The latest hostilities began with an eviction of a Palestinian family from a home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem for reportedly not paying rent. Protests then expanded into clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, considered the third holiest site for Muslims. Finally, it culminated into over 1,000 rocket and missile exchanges between the Israeli military and Palestinian militant.
Since Monday, Erdoğan has spoken to Malaysia's king and the leaders of Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh. This is part of his effort to become the focal point of global Islamic condemnation against Israel. In fact, Erdoğan and Turkish officials have led the charge in condemning Israel. The Turkish President described Israel as a “cruel terrorist state,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said “the Islamic community expects us to take action,” and the head of Communications of the Turkish Presidency, Fahrettin Altun, said “If this is a war; then we will fight with all our might against Israel's oppression, occupation and massacres. God is with us.”
This is a far cry from the inundation of Turkish media reports late last year claiming Ankara and Tel Aviv were normalising their relations. The Jerusalem Post reflected in December 2020 that “the leaked stories about 'secret' talks [between Turkey and Israel] are designed only to muddle Israel’s relationships with other states” and to tidy up Ankara’s reputation before Joe Biden entered the White House in January 2021. This supposed flurry of renewed contacts between Turkey and Israel was just weeks after Erdoğan described Jerusalem as “our city.”
There is no doubt that the rhetorical exchange between Israel and Turkey is far from friendly, but the economic ties between the two countries are a lot closer than one would anticipate. As the Jerusalem Post noted in October 2020, “the frayed diplomatic relationship between Israel and Turkey does not seem to be damaging trade ties between the two Eastern Mediterranean states.” The report highlighted that during the first nine months of 2020, Turkey’s exports to Israel amounted to $3.2 billion, almost the same as the previous year’s export volume in the same period – this was achieved despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, Turkey’s economic penetration into Israel is even highlighted in the barrage of rocket and missile exchanges between the Israeli military and Gazan militias. Despite Hamas openly operating out of Turkey and having a close relationship with the government, it did not stop the militant group from targeting Israel’s Dorad Power Station that the Turkish company Zorlu has a 25% share in.
It is for this very reason that despite Turkey’s threats of war against Israel, the current situation is unlikely to descend further than rhetorical exchanges. Erdoğan’s popularity and approval is following the trajectory of Turkey’s economy – sharp decline. It also comes as Turkey is becoming increasingly isolated regionally and internationally.
The situation in Jerusalem and Gaza provides the Turkish President an opportunity to latch onto the Palestine issue, regardless of the fact that Turkey was the first Muslim-majority state to recognise Israel and continues to have a prosperous trade exchange with the country. As the Palestinian issue is a major matter of interest for many Muslims, Erdoğan is attempting to shore up his domestic and global support by once again being a leading voice in criticizing Israel. It is for this reason that Turkey brutally arrested hundreds of people on May Day due to “a ban related to the pandemic” but only days later allowed massive protest at the Israeli Embassy in Ankara and Consulate in Istanbul despite the very same COVID-19 restrictions.
This is now a test for Erdoğan – after years of rhetorically condemning Israel, and now the foreign minister saying there is a supposed global demand for action by Turkey and threats of war by the head of communications for the Turkish Presidency, there are questions of a Third Intifada by commentators. Will Erdoğan continue to not walk the talk with Israel, or will he jeopardize Turkey’s multibillion trade relation with Israel at a time when the domestic economic situation is desperate?