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In balancing Turkey's interests, Erdogan walks tightrope between West, Hamas

Despite his high-pitched criticism of Israel, Erdogan is expected to tread cautiously on ties with Hamas, unwilling to add further strain on Turkey’s relations with the West and jeopardize trade with Israel.
TOPSHOT - German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R) gestures after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a guest book during his visit at Bellevue presidential palace in Berlin on November 17, 2023. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

With the conflict in Gaza now in its third month, pressure is piling on Ankara to rethink its ties with Hamas as the United States pushes for measures to curb the group’s financial means and Israel plans to hunt down Hamas leaders on foreign soil, including Turkey.

Several countries, among them Turkey, saw their calculations upset as Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel responded with a ferocious war on Gaza. While the conflict derailed Saudi moves toward establishing ties with Israel, it halted the momentum in Turkey's recently normalized ties with Israel. As the toll in Gaza climbed to disastrous proportions, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abandoned the cautious attitude he had initially displayed, but despite his angry outbursts against Israel, he has not allowed diplomatic and commercial ties to rupture. 

While Erdogan's assertion that “Hamas is not a terrorist organization but a liberation group” made the headlines internationally, the domestic debate in Turkey has focused on why commercial and diplomatic ties with Israel are not cut. The contradiction between defending Hamas and the continued shipping of Turkish goods to Israel has ostensibly put Erdogan in a tight spot, spawning an oft-repeated sarcasm on social media that Turkey is sending “prayers to Palestine and ships to Israel." Yet this contradiction meshes with Erdogan's pragmatism and offers him the chance to play a two-way game. 

At the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Doha this month, Erdogan talked tough again, accusing Israel of war crimes and stressing that it “should not get away with those crimes." However, everyone seems to have realized by now that Erdogan is unwilling to use the political, economic and diplomatic means at his disposal in a way that could really hurt Israel. 

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