Erdoğan’s loud support for Palestine drowning out his silence for Uighurs

In the 2000s, it was fashionable in the Arab world to name different varieties of dates after figures who supported the Palestinian cause. During the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, the best, most expensive dates were named after Hezbollah Leader Hasan Nasrallah. Using the same logic, the names of then Iranian leader Mahmut Ahmadinejad, and Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chávez, also came to the fore. These leaders did not need to do too much to win over the Arab people, who did not much care for their own politicians. A few words and deeds did the trick.

Israel's Cast Lead operation against Gaza, which started in the final days of 2008 and lasted for just over three weeks, gave way to the birth of a new leader in the Middle East: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Then-Prime Minister Erdoğan was, undoubtedly, the international leader who took the most outspoken stance against the conflict, which left more than 1,500 Palestinians dead, more than 5,000 injured, and thousands of buildings heavily damaged.

One of the most important reasons for his strong reaction was that he had not been informed about the operation in advance, despite near constant contact with Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister at the time.

On Dec. 22, just days before the Cast Lead operation was launched, Erdoğan hosted Olmert in Ankara as part of mediation talks between Israel and Syria. Olmert said that he would report back with a decision on the discussions within two days. Turkey’s president at the time, Abdullah Gül, was already scheduled to travel to Tel Aviv in preparation.

Former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told Emirati newspaper in 2010 that the peace deal between Israel and Syria had almost been ready.

“On Dec. 29, the leaders of Syria and Israel would come together and announce a joint declaration to the world,” Davutoğlu said. “There was only one word in the text that could not be agreed upon.”

Olmert and Erdoğan were set to iron out that last detail on Dec. 27, Davutoğlu said. “However, at the time of the meeting, Israel launched an operation against Gaza.”

Israeli newspaper Haaretz published the details of the proposed 2009 declaration: Israel would declare its readiness to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights in exchange for a permanent peace and security arrangement.

According to another interesting detail reported by Haaretz at the time, when the Turkish premier learned of the attack, he proclaimed Olmert had stabbed him in the back and that Israel would pay a price.

Namık Tan, one of Turkey's former ambassadors to Washington, said that Olmert, whom he met years later, told him that he owed Erdoğan an apology.

Until war broke out in Gaza, there had been historic developments in Turkish-Israeli, and by extension, Turkish-Palestinian relations.

Davutoğlu and then- Foreign Minister Ali Babacan were holding Palestine talks in the Middle East almost every day. Davutoğlu was serving as Erdoğan’s chief advisor at the time. Turkish attempts to establish a free trade zone at the Israel-Gaza border in Erez were moving at full speed.

This improvement in Turkish-Israeli relations reflected positively in Palestine, where aid access was getting easier, and the walls around Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, were slowly being removed.  

The fact that Olmert was a social democrat in power in Israel also played an important role, but the 2009 conflict in Gaza was not the only turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations. In the infamous “one minute” incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos in Jan. 2009, Erdoğan stormed off the stage during a discussion on Gaza with Israel’s president at the time, Shimon Peres, deeply damaging relations between the two countries. Further damage came as right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu won Israel’s presidential elections and took office later in the year.

The crisis in bilateral relations continued into 2010, with Turkey's ambassador to Tel Aviv, Oğuz Çelikkol, getting summoned to the Israeli Foreing Ministry after Mossad agents were insulted in the popular Turkish television drama Valley of the Wolves. Çelikkol was publicly snubbed at the meeting by Deputy Foreign Minister Dany Ayalon, who refused to shake the envoy’s hand and offered him a much lower seat.

However, operation Cast Lead aside, it was the Mavi Marmara incident that caused the most damage to Israeli-Turkish relations. Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish citizens during an intervention on the aid flotilla on May 31, 2010 while the vessel was in international waters, to stop it from reaching Gaza’s shores. Erdoğan later fumed that the ships had taken off without his permission.

To this date, Turkey’s relations with Israel are mutually represented only at the level of chargé d’affaires. 

Despite occasional attempts at reconciliation since Mavi Marmara, little progress has been made due to religious and nationalist policies in both countries. 

Unlike other U.S. allies in the region, Israel has not responded to Erdoğan’s efforts to restart dialogue following the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States. Although Turkey has even gone as far as naming the ambassador proposed to return to Tel Aviv, it has received no response, partly due to other developments in the region.

Netanyahu, like Erdoğan, is trying to preserve his political position, and his long-standing inability to form a government has inevitably seen him take steps to raise tensions in the region. The political stalemate facing Netanyahu is the main reason behind the current military operation in Gaza.

As expected, the strongest response against Israel’s actions has come from Erdoğan and Turkey. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has organised marches and protests across the country, and government officials have heavily criticised Israel, with the support off all opposition parties.

However, Erdoğan’s latest outburst in support of the Palestinians comes amid silence about the plight of the Uighur people, and could therefore struggle to have the desired effect on Turkish society or the international community. 

Although the Turkish president has chosen an image of a protector of Muslims around the world, he and his government have dropped the ball when it comes to the Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region.

Back in 2009, Erdoğan had called China’s treatment of the Uighurs “genocide”, however, recent years saw silence from the Turkish president as relations with China took precedence.

Until new contracts were signed with Western partners, Turkey relied solely on China for COVID-19 vaccines. December saw delivery for a large shipment of several million doses delayed, and the crisis was resolved as an extradition treaty between the two countries moved forward. More doses scheduled to arrive by the end of May were delayed again, a development behind which Chinese officials said were no “political motives”.

The Muslim minority has seen an intensified crackdown from Turkish authorities, while several prominent members of the community in Turkey have reportedly disappeared.

Feridun Sinirlioğlu, Turkey’s permanent representative for the United Nations, said in a U.N. meeting on Thursday that Ankara was “concerned to the highest degree” over China’s “ongoing practices on human rights violations”. Erdoğan hasn’t spoken about the matter recently.