During the 16th century war between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice over Cyprus, Sultan Selim II negotiated the release of Ottoman Jewish sea merchants in exchange for Venetian merchants. As he put it, merchants had to be free to carry on with their business, for “these people have nothing to do with the affairs of the states” – a principle that allowed wars to happen while trade carried on as usual.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been dubbed “the New Sultan” by some, and his rivals accuse him of operating a business-as-usual strategy with Israel ahead of momentous snap elections in Turkey on Sunday. Erdogan may have attacked Israel with harsh rhetoric and expelled its ambassador in the aftermath of the bloodiest day of Gaza protests on May 15, when some 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. But opposition leaders have slammed him for leaving economic ties untouched.
“Have you boycotted Israeli products? No. Have you nixed deals with Israel? No. Have you returned the $20 million given for the Mavi Marmara [incident, when Israel killed nine Turkish activists in 2010]? No,” said Erdogan’s main challenger, Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate for the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
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Ince claimed that the demonstration organized by Erdogan in Istanbul to show solidarity with the Palestinians following the Gaza deaths was an empty political gesture with which he hoped to bank on anti-Israeli sentiment ahead of the elections. At a recent rally, Ince even accused Erdogan of having struck a “secret deal” with Israel, complaining that “oil and seed trade” continues unscathed, despite the recent diplomatic row over Gaza and the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem. The CHP also pledges to scrap Turkey's requirement of tourist visas for Palestinians, which Israelis do not need, though many Palestinian already come into Turkey from the West Bank with Jordanian passports.
More importantly, the CHP clearly states in its election platform that it will call off the Mavi Marmara agreement, which reestablished diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey in December 2016, six years after they were benched.
Unlike the CHP, Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) does not mention ditching the agreement in its own election manifesto – if anything because it was a deal of its own making. Sure, the platform does contain slogans such as “Jerusalem is our red line” and “Palestine is not alone,” but it does not mention what these statements mean in reality.
Crucially, days after the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey started, the AKP voted down a bill in Parliament that proposed canceling all previous agreements with the Jewish state and severing economic ties.
“Last night, the opposition submitted a parliamentary motion requesting that all trade, cultural and arms agreements with Israel be canceled. The motion requesting the imposition of sanctions on Israel was brought down with votes from the AKP and the MHP [Nationalist Movement Party, which is allied with Erdogan]. And that was that,” protested secularist newspaper Sozcu on May 18.
The nationalist newspaper Yenicag went so far the same day as to poke fun at “the owner of the Jewish Courage Medal, Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” saying his bravery against “the terrorist State of Israel” extended merely to tweeting Netanyahu. “In other words, a war with Israel was launched by means of a tweet,” the newspaper wrote sarcastically. Under pressure, Erdogan responded that Turkey will “assess the situation” and possibly also “evaluate ties” with Israel, but only after the elections.
While Ince’s CHP stands as Erdogan’s main political rival, analysts note that the Kurdish-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) could play a major role if it surpasses the 10 percent parliamentary threshold. HDP, whose candidate Selahattin Demirtas is running for president from prison, couples its focus on the Kurdish cause with left-wing politics – which includes a strong condemnation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its “ethnic cleansing,” as the party platform for the upcoming elections states.
A party spokesperson told Haaretz that the HDP was the only Turkish party to oppose the Mavi Marmara agreement from the moment it was conceived, adding that Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel is simply “theater.” They also allege that the president’s sons benefit directly from strong economic ties between the two countries, since they are involved in shipping businesses that trade with Israel.
Israeli-Turkish relations reached a new low in May when the Israeli ambassador was forced to endure security checks at Istanbul Airport in front of the Turkish media after being expelled from the country. Some warn that while diplomatic rows take time to negatively impact economic relations, they immediately freeze the creation of new business links and the improvement of bilateral cooperation between the countries.
So, Turkish and Israeli companies that already agreed to do business with one another will likely not call off deals in light of deteriorating diplomatic relations. However, few entrepreneurs will consider initiating business with partners in Turkey and Israel, respectively, in the wake of the row. The busy and highly profitable air route between Tel Aviv and Istanbul – which is operated by both Turkey’s flag carrier, Turkish Airlines, and the Turkish low-cost airline Pegasus Airlines, which also flies to Antalya, could be an early casualty if relations were to deteriorate further, causing losses to the companies and harm to Israeli consumers. Israeli airlines hoping to service the route one day could also see their hopes dashed.
Branding Erdogan as the pro-Israel guy in town – as the Turkish opposition is doing ahead of the elections – may sound like a paradox. After all, this is the politician who ended an era of strong Turkish-Israeli ties, with his rise to power in the early 2000s inaugurating a period of uneasy relations and periodic diplomatic brinkmanship. His 2009 Davos speech when he interrupted the moderator using the English phrase “One minute,” before telling then-President Shimon Peres that Israel knows “how to kill very well,” over its Operation Cast Lead in Gaza that year, became legendary among Turks.
Michelangelo Guida, head of the political science department at 29 Mayis University in Istanbul, notes that “decades of successful economic and military cooperation with Israel were based on a strong connection with the Kemalist bureaucracy that has dominated Turkish foreign policy alongside the military for years, rather than on amity with the politicians and the people of Turkey. After Erdogan sidelined the old establishment, the whole structure came crashing down.”
Accusing Erdogan of being “soft on Israel” ahead of the elections could well be an attempt to secure votes by being “more popish than the Pope,” as one Western diplomat who has spent several years in Turkey puts it.
But close observers of the election campaigns can’t help noting that, as long as Netanyahu is in power, for ambassadors to return Erdogan could well be Israel’s best bet.