Gaza war is redefining Turkiye’s sociopolitical narratives

Gaza war is redefining Turkiye’s sociopolitical narratives

People attend a rally in Istanbul in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. (Reuters/File Photo)
People attend a rally in Istanbul in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Turkiye on Tuesday announced restrictions on trade with Israel, while Turkish Airlines has suspended flights to the country, marking Ankara’s first significant measures against Israel after six months of war in Gaza. Although the decision came after Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan condemned Israel for preventing aid from reaching the people of Gaza, the move seems to have been motivated by a confluence of factors spanning the political, societal and international realms.

At the political level, there is an understanding that the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have undergone a period of foreign policy reflection since the nationwide local elections of March 31 resulted in a victory for the opposition. This was the first time since Erdogan came to power 22 years ago that his party had been defeated across the country at the ballot box. It prompted a reassessment of strategies after more than two decades of dominance. Erdogan acknowledged that the election had not gone as hoped and that it would mark “a turning point” for him and his party.

Although Turkiye’s economic crisis is seen as the leading reason for the decline in the AKP’s votes, the government’s stance toward the ongoing Gaza war is believed to have been another influential factor. While it is not clear to what extent the Gaza war affected the election results, it certainly did affect the political and societal narratives in the country, as the Palestinian issue occupies a significant place in the hearts and minds of the Turkish people and the country’s political parties.

The Palestinian issue occupies a significant place in the hearts and minds of the Turkish people. 

Sinem Cengiz

Since Oct. 7, Erdogan has escalated his criticism of Israel, engaging in a rhetorical confrontation and implementing various diplomatic measures, such as recalling ambassadors, suspending talks and backing Palestine on the international stage. Ankara also became the largest humanitarian donor to Gaza, along with the UAE, and advocated the idea of a guarantor system to work toward a two-state solution. Despite these efforts, Turkiye’s actions were deemed inadequate not only by Arab streets but also by its domestic critics, particularly the opposition parties, which made suspending trade with Israel a central campaign theme.

The conservative New Welfare Party, known as the YRP, emerged as a vocal critic despite once being an AKP ally. Heavily criticizing the government for not halting its ongoing trade ties with Israel, the YRP even went as far as saying that every vote for the AKP was like sending a bullet to the Israeli military for it to use in its ongoing “genocide” in Gaza. The YRP based its argument on various reports that have shown that trade with Israel was not only being conducted by private companies, but also by companies run by individuals close to Erdogan. The YRP, which last year entered the Turkish parliament thanks to its alliance with the AKP, decided to run independently this time and it turned out to be the third most successful party in the local polls.

The YRP’s criticism of the government’s policy toward Israel seems to have triggered a wave of disapproval among traditional AKP voters, who started to see the YRP as an alternative. Although it is uncertain how this was reflected in the votes, Erdogan was quoted by local media as saying: “Unfortunately, even on an issue like the Gaza crisis, for which we did everything we could and paid the price, we failed to fend off political attacks and convince some people.”

On the societal level, reactions to the government’s stance have manifested in protests and expressions of dissent. For example, dozens of citizens gathered in Taksim Square in central Istanbul last Saturday, calling on the Turkish government to sever trade ties with Israel. The detention of demonstrators prompted angry reactions from opposition parties and society. During election rallies, people showed their reaction to the government’s policy with banners demanding “End the trade with Israel.” Some people even wrote “Gaza” on their ballot papers on election day. So, this sort of societal reaction was not surprising.

Although Israel claimed that the election outcome reflected a backlash against Erdogan’s anti-Tel Aviv stance, the reality suggests otherwise. There have even been expectations of Turkiye going further with its actions against Israel, such as a trade embargo and the closure of the Kurecik Radar Station in eastern Turkiye, which the YRP argues is used to protect Israel.

The Gaza war is no longer a mere foreign policy issue, it has become a game-changer in Turkish politics. 

Sinem Cengiz

On the issue of trade, Ankara has long believed that collectively punishing Israeli society by cutting ties altogether would also negatively affect the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Even after the 2010 Mavi Marmara massacre, Turkiye did not end its bilateral trade relations with Israel.

However, despite all diplomatic and humanitarian calls, Israel continues its atrocities in Gaza. Therefore, Turkiye’s latest measure to restrict some of its exports to Israel is important, underscoring the significance of the Gaza war in reshaping domestic and foreign policy narratives.

The Gaza war is no longer a mere foreign policy issue, it has become a game-changer in Turkish politics. This is due to both the magnitude of the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the fact that, in Turkiye, domestic and foreign policy issues are intricately intertwined.

Looking ahead, while Turkiye will not have any more major elections for several years, it remains to be seen how the Gaza war will continue to shape its domestic and foreign agenda.

  • Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. X: @SinemCngz
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