By Ali Siddiqi
Over the past winter break, I had the tremendous privilege of visiting Istanbul, Turkey. However, while I was there, I also wanted to satisfy my curiosity about the current state of Turkish-Israeli relations. Historically, both countries have had amicable ties with one another. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize the state of Israel, and both countries have cooperated militarily, strategically, and diplomatically, sharing concerns over regional instabilities. However, over the last decade, under the presidency of the populist and conservative leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, relations between the two countries have deteriorated significantly. President Erdogan has repeatedly accused the Israeli government of perpetrating violence against Palestinian citizens, while the Israeli government has condemned the Turkish government for its armed attacks against the Kurdish population and its funding of Hamas. In fact, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen openly named Turkey as a new threat to the stability of the region, citing its support of terrorist groups and its human rights violations. Given all this, when I traveled to Turkey, I sought to find out what the Turkish people thought of Erdogan’s foreign policy – particularly in regards to his rhetoric and animosity towards Israel. However, I must note that Istanbul is an extremely cosmopolitan city, having historically been more liberal and secular than the rest of the country. In fact, the city elected a critic of the controversial president as its mayor in 2019.
Upon arriving in Istanbul, I immediately noticed how nationalism and national identity permeated its society. Almost every place I visited had multiple Turkish flags flying or hanging on its walls. Another aspect of Turkish society that I thought was worth noting was the idolization of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country’s secular founder. Every building, store, and restaurant I went to had a portrait or photo of the leader. Even small souvenir stores had a picture of the country’s founder. What was remarkable to me was that this was not forced upon or dictated to the Turkish people by their governments, but rather they chose to pay tribute to this man extensively. When I asked the reason for this extensive glorification, I would often receive a list of his political accomplishments such as his promotion of women’s rights, his secularization of the country, and his economic policies which stimulated significant economic growth in the aftermath of the country’s defeat in World War One. Yet, I must note that while Ataturk did achieve such accomplishments, he also pursued a policy of ‘Turkification,’ forcing the ethnic minorities of Turkey to assimilate and adopt a Turkish culture at the expense of their own.
Unfortunately, the country was in the middle of an economic crisis while I was there. Inflation was at an all-time high of 36.08%, with one American dollar being worth 17 Turkish Liras. Unemployment was at 15% and the poverty rate was at 13%. The COVID-19 Pandemic forced many Turkish cafes and stores to shutter their business permanently and the inflation rate has made basic necessities such as food and water increasingly expensive to the majority of the Turkish population. President Erdogan’s protectionist economic policies, such as his refusal to raise the interest rates against the wishes of his own chief economists, have made President Erdogan increasingly unpopular with the Turkish people. I recall seeing anti-Erdogan messages and graffiti plastered over the city walls and his picture defaced in public areas. I remember speaking to our hotel manager, storekeepers, and taxi drivers who all criticized Erdogan on that matter, with one calling him an “economic fool” citing his refusal to raise interest rates in the wake of Turkey’s inflation crisis.
However, I didn’t find any answers to my questions about Turkish-Israeli relations until I visited a car rental company that had a sign with a list of all the countries that they provide car rental services in, as well as their respective flags, shown below. I noticed that out of all the flags and countries that they listed, only the Israeli flag was vandalized and replaced with a drawing of the Palestinian flag. Upon asking about the vandalism, the front-desk receptionist told me that it had happened during the protests that occurred during the Israeli-Palestinian crisis of May 2021. When I asked why the vandalism hasn’t been cleaned, he told me that the graffiti removal “is quite difficult” and remarked, “besides, it is not as if we are losing customers because of it,” adding that he doesn’t really care much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but that a majority of their car renters come from countries that have cold, if not outright hostile, relations with Israel. Consequently, the company had no motive to remove the vandalism.
I realized that his answer was from a self-interested position rather than a political position. This answer was quite common throughout my travels in Istanbul with businesses and hotels that cater to foreign citizens often sidelining Israel to cater to foreign tourists that come from countries that have a closer relationship with Turkey and/or an acrimonious relationship with Israel such as Pakistan and Iran. For example, when I visited a hotel for dinner, I noticed that the exterior had a line of flags of countries with one flagpole missing a flag. I discerned that the flags consisted of countries that sent the most tourists to Istanbul: American, British, Russian, Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani flags. When I asked what flag was removed, the front desk receptionist told me that it was the Israeli flag. When I asked why it was removed, she referred me to corporate management. I later found out that the flag was most likely removed in the wake of a diplomatic incident that occurred last November when two Israeli citizens who were visiting Turkey were arrested on suspicion of espionage. Although they were later released, this incident serves as an example of how hostile the relationship between the countries has become.
Throughout my encounters with the people of Istanbul, I have found that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simply is not of great interest to the Turkish people. They either have no interest or have a limited understanding of it based on news reports about it by TRT World, which is a Turkish state-owned international news channel and as a result, provides foreign policy coverage through the lens of the Turkish government. I have watched TRT World’s reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have found that their reporting is biased against the Israeli perspective. In fact, foreign policy was not a primary–or even secondary–issue to Turkish citizens. Almost everyone I spoke to had a negative view of the Erdogan government primarily because of his mishandling of the economic crisis, the COVID pandemic, and his constant attacks on Turkey’s secular and democratic identity. Often, the foreign policy of a nation is overlooked by its citizens. This is known as the “mass public,” as they have neither the interest nor the means to alter foreign policy, a theory that holds true to Turkey as well. Though I spoke to just a small portion of the city’s 15.46 million citizens, I could tell that the internal situation of the country is quite dire compared to its external situation. The mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing economic crisis, the rising unemployment and poverty, and the democratic backsliding have negatively impacted the Turkish population and consequently made the Erdogan government and the ruling AKP party extremely unpopular. If the Erdogan government continues on this track, then it is increasingly likely that his party will lose the 2023 Presidential election and that the secular, democratic, and liberal CHP party will come into power. In such a scenario, it’s possible that the relationship between Turkey and Israel could end their present hostilities and gradually rebuild their amicable relationship.