In December, the funeral for Turkish parliament member Hasan Bitmez brought together opposition leaders at the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan at the ”Great Palestine Meeting” at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul on October 28, 2023. TUR Presidency / Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Handout / Anadolu via Getty Images

Bitmez, a lawmaker with the conservative opposition Saadet Party, had died on December 14 from a heart attack sustained at the podium on the floor of Parliament as he wrapped up a fiery speech lambasting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for their dealings with Israel. “You have the blood of Palestinians on your hands, you are collaborators. You contribute to every bomb Israel drops on Gaza,” he said just before collapsing on the floor.[1]

At his funeral, Bitmez was hailed as a martyr for challenging President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s handling of the Gaza war. Former President Abdullah Gül, who co-founded the AKP but later parted ways with Erdoğan, squeezed his way past Istanbul’s mayor Erkem İmamoğlu as the country’s top opposition figures jostled for room in the front row of the Fatih Mosque’s courtyard. The crowd chanted, “Murderer Israel, collaborator AKP.”[2] Their anger was not only directed at Israel but also at the lack of serious action by the AKP.

The Gaza war has rekindled an emotionally charged issue among the Turkish public and Erdoğan’s base, but Erdoğan’s government has yet to take meaningful political action. Instead, Ankara has continued to trade billions of dollars in goods with Israel and has maintained its security communication channels, even as Erdoğan denounces Israeli actions as amounting to genocide and compares the Israeli premier to Adolf Hitler. Opposition leaders have seized on this relative inaction, accusing the president of doing little more than holding protest rallies to pander to one of the few issues that still unifies an otherwise deeply divided public. The weeks following the outbreak of war saw rare protests at which leftist groups, including some of the country’s largest labor unions, held rallies at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul alongside conservatives and AKP supporters.

While criticisms from smaller Islamist parties like the Saadet Party may be expected, the widespread support for Palestine across a diverse coalition of opposition parties, including the main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), signifies a change in the political landscape. Erdoğan’s success at dethroning the historically assertive and secular military, which for decades enforced cooperative relations with Israel, has opened avenues for confronting Israel that were not available to earlier leaders. Support for Palestine is now a matter of consensus that transcends the political and secular-religious divide. But this new space for criticizing Israel could also work against Erdoğan.

Since October 7, opposition leaders have increasingly sought to leverage the issue of Palestine against Erdoğan, accusing him of exploiting the cause for political expediency. In so doing, they have called into question Erdoğan’s self-proclaimed status as davanin sahibi (guardian of the cause) and have simultaneously asserted themselves as stronger advocates for the Palestinians. Addressing a public that is watching closely as disturbing videos and images continue to flow out of Gaza, the opposition is framing their critique of Erdoğan not only in relation to foreign policy but also domestic governance. They have mobilized an emotionally powerful and unifying issue to articulate broader grievances over Erdoğan’s ostensible hypocritical and corrupt rule—and, ultimately, to position themselves as better suited to lead Turkey.


Erdogan’s Balancing Act


From early in his presidency, Erdoğan has attempted to project himself as a force in the region by assuming a leadership role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Following his landslide electoral success in 2002, he positioned Turkey as a potential mediator in the conflict, even visiting Tel Aviv in 2005 to tighten diplomatic relations. The strategy aligned with successive Turkish leaders, who favored leveraging their foothold in the Middle East to foster Turkey’s ascension into the European Union. As joining the European Union grew further out of reach, however, in his second term, Erdoğan began to orient his attention toward building alliances and growing his stature in the Middle East, which meant distancing himself from Israel and doubling down on his solidarity with Palestine.

If a single moment marked Erdoğan’s transformation into a leader who would stand squarely in solidarity with Palestinians, it was at a panel discussion during the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos. Set against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” which killed 1,200 Palestinians, Erdoğan challenged Israeli President Shimon Peres’ assertion that Israel was committed to peace and that Hamas was to blame for the war. As the exchange wrapped up, with Peres granted double the time to speak, a slighted Erdoğan vied for an extra minute and the final word. “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” Erdoğan told Peres, before walking off the stage, vowing not to return to the forum due to the unequal time allotment.[3] The video quickly went viral across the Middle East, assuring many in Turkey and across the region that Erdoğan was willing to speak boldly for Palestinians where others were not.

The Davos exchange catapulted Erdoğan’s popularity across the region. His role as an advocate for Palestine complemented his broader efforts to frame Turkey as a bulwark against Western imperialism. This positioning was further cemented when, in 2010, Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, killing 10 Turkish nationals. The ship, leading a larger flotilla, was meant to break the Israeli siege on Gaza by delivering humanitarian aid, and the Israeli attack set off a major diplomatic rift between Erdoğan and Israel.

The Turkey-Israel relationship remained strained until 2013, when Netanyahu apologized for the raid. Full ties were restored in 2016 after Tel Aviv paid $20 million in compensation to the victims’ families. In response, Erdoğan’s government suppressed protests and quashed a set of court cases raised by families of those killed on the ship, who were suing Israel. Just as Erdoğan had neutralized his political opponents, jailing Kurdish leaders and launching a wide crackdown against critics amid an intensifying authoritarian turn, the victims of the Mavi Marmara raid—arguably the most fervent supporters of Palestine in Turkey—were no longer supported by the state.

Erdoğan’s bold statements in favor of Palestinian self-determination were not new to Turkish politics, but his diplomatic actions—such as expelling the Israeli ambassador following the Mavi Marmara attack—set a new norm and underlined the weakening of the Turkish military. Going back decades, to the mid-1990s, as a NATO-member, Turkey helped train Israeli fighter pilots. Since then, Israel has provided reconnaissance drones and critical military hardware updates to Turkey. The countries also cooperate closely on security and, at times, have shared intelligence on Iran’s activities, including threats its agents pose to Israeli tourists. Historically, the military has confronted any serious threats to this arrangement. Erdoğan’s political mentor, the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, from whose party the AKP splintered, was forced from power in a so-called “soft coup” in 1997. Erbakan’s outspoken support for Palestine, which included rallies praising Hamas and Hezbollah and fiery speeches by Iranian diplomats, were cited as a reason by the military to force his government from power.

Under Erdoğan’s tenure, Turkey has been one of Israel’s biggest buyers of advanced military technologies, and Israel imports around $6 billion each year from Turkey.
Despite overturning the military’s foreign policy influence, however, Erdoğan has largely protected the status quo in terms of trade and defense—to the disappointment of skeptical Islamists who have consistently accused him of aiding Zionism. Under Erdoğan’s tenure, Turkey has been one of Israel’s biggest buyers of advanced military technologies, and Israel imports around $6 billion each year from Turkey. While Turkey exports less than $1 million worth of direct defense-related goods to Israel, its largest exports are in steel, which likely contributes to Israel’s defense industry. Since 2022, the countries have been working to smooth over their diplomatic tensions, fitting Turkey within a larger regional bloc of countries, like Saudi Arabia, that have sought to normalize ties with Israel.

When it comes to Erdoğan’s outspokenness on behalf of Palestine, while it may be remarkable on the world stage, his government’s actions are not unique compared to other countries in the region. Like Qatar, Turkey allows Hamas leaders to live in the country, albeit discreetly, and Erdoğan has publicly refused to partake in sanctions against the group or declare it a terrorist organization. Like Egypt, Turkey brings some Palestinians from Gaza to the country for medical treatment they cannot find in the Gaza Strip. And like a long list of countries, including those outside the region, Erdoğan has called for holding Israel accountable in the international arena by ending veto powers in the UN Security Council and supporting South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice.


Palestine and the Opposition


Weeks after the war began, on October 28, the ruling AKP organized a massive rally in Istanbul to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of modern Turkey, re-tooling it as a protest against Israel. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the CHP and a candidate for president who narrowly lost to Erdoğan in May 2023 elections, pointed out the unusual nature of a government-led protest against Israel. “Blood is flowing in Palestine,” Kılıçdaroğlu said, responding to Erdoğan’s rally. “You are the government, not the opposition. What are you doing at the rally?”[4] His remarks were particularly cutting given how Erdoğan’s government had treated other unsanctioned public rallies against Israel: protests at Israeli diplomatic missions, along with an attempt by a crowd to overrun Incirlik air base—a critical base used by the United States—have been dispersed by riot police.

The criticisms are framed not only as stemming from concern for Palestine—traditionally a cause of Islamists and left-wing movements—but also in relation to domestically rooted grievances over Erdoğan’s ostensible hypocritical, corrupt and divisive style of rule.
Parties like Saadet, which emerged from Erbakan’s movement, have long pointed out the inconsistencies in Erdoğan’s treatment of Israel, but now the larger opposition is joining in. The criticisms are framed not only as stemming from concern for Palestine—traditionally a cause of Islamists and left-wing movements—but also in relation to domestically rooted grievances over Erdoğan’s ostensible hypocritical, corrupt and divisive style of rule. While Erdoğan has repeatedly touted his support for Palestine to justify his leadership, the opposition now has the opportunity to call him on his bluff, going so far as to accuse his family of benefiting financially from the Israel-Turkey alliance.

In December, Mahmut Tanal, a lawmaker from the CHP, questioned foreign minister Hakan Fidan in Parliament in response to news reports that members of the AKP continued to be involved in lucrative trade with Israel. “Will diplomatic relations with the State of Israel be suspended?” Tanal asked. “Are there any sanctions that your ministry has imposed or intends to impose in response to Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestine? If no decision on sanctions has been taken, what is the reason for this?”[5] Fidan, the former head of the country’s national intelligence agency, held firm to the party line: that Turkey’s relationship with Israel—which long predated the AKP’s existence—does not contradict its support for the Palestinians. The opposition, however, has remained unconvinced. They are demanding greater accountability, including reviewing trade relations with Israel and taking a more central role in challenging Israel’s actions through international forums like the United Nations.

The opposition has seized the moment to criticize Erdoğan’s divisive style of rule as counterproductive to both national unity and the Palestinian cause. Kilicdaroglu’s successor as the CHP’s leader, Özgür Özel, called on Erdoğan to join him and other political leaders to visit Gaza. “I have made my own application to go to Palestine and raise our voice about the massacres committed to the world,” he told party members at a CHP meeting. “But I have a call on Erdoğan. Let’s go to Palestine altogether with the leaders of all political parties. Let’s demonstrate the stance of all of Turkey.”[6]

By framing support for Palestine as an issue on which the nation should stand united, Özel and other leaders are able to criticize Erdoğan’s attempts to monopolize the issue to gain political points and sideline his opponents. From challenging his handling of Turkey’s crippling financial crisis to the post-earthquake recovery, Palestine has become the latest issue through which the opposition has challenged Erdogan’s paternalistic control over the country and found cracks in his divisive approach to politics.


Turning Erdoğan’s Rhetoric Against Him


Palestine has remained among the few issues that unify the Turkish public as well as one of the issues where Turkish public opinion aligns with public sentiment across the Middle East. It only seemed natural, then, that Erdoğan—whose political roots trace through transnational Islamist movements of the 1980s and 1990s—would take up the region’s cause celebre. By removing the military and a staunchly secular Kemalist elite from the picture, Erdoğan opened space for previously unallowed forms of solidarity, including aggressively anti-Israel rhetoric and alliances with groups like Hamas. While such positions were perhaps always popular among the population, especially Erdoğan’s conservative base, he managed to shift the boundaries of acceptable discourse and entrench criticism of Israel as an inevitable component of Turkish politics.

If European powers and the United States refuse to sanction Israel for its actions in Gaza, how then can they challenge Turkey for its own human rights record?
Siding with the Palestinians has another domestic benefit for Erdoğan: By pointing out the hypocrisy of Western powers in applying human rights standards, he can challenge the universality of such notions and open space for his own government’s controversial actions, including military operations in Syria and Iraq. Even as Erdoğan criticizes Israel for its indiscriminate airstrikes in Gaza, the Turkish military carries out airstrikes that kill Kurdish civilians in northern Syria and Iraq. If European powers and the United States refuse to sanction Israel for its actions in Gaza, how then can they challenge Turkey for its own human rights record? Erdoğan’s charges against the Western double standards have become a hallmark of his public speeches, working to drum up anger at the United States and Europe in ways that temper and deflect criticisms against his own government.

Yet, the inconsistency between rhetoric and action has not gone unnoticed by Erdoğan’s opponents, who have fired back with their own accusations of hypocrisy. Other Islam-oriented politicians—many of whom have split from the AKP, such as Ahmet Davutoglu—have leveled these same allegations against Erdoğan for some time now. But parties like the CHP, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, are also beginning to turn the issue back at Erdoğan.

For now, Erdoğan seems unlikely to lose a significant number of votes over the backlash, as it has primarily emboldened those already critical of his rule. Furthermore, amid surging inflation and a major economic crisis, issues of foreign policy have largely been placed on the back burner. But with a passionate segment of the public and the opposition connecting his inconsistency on Palestine with broader concerns over corruption, the standards he has set and the possibilities he has forged in terms of standing up for Palestine might end up working against him. Against his own best interests, Erdoğan has inadvertently shown that greater action is possible and that Turkey can, in fact, play a role in advancing the Palestinian cause. After more than two decades in power, Erdoğan is no longer the boldest politician holding the microphone.


[Umar Farooq has worked as a correspondent covering Turkey and other parts of Asia and as an investigative journalist with ProPublica. Michael Kaplan is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at The George Washington University.]





[1] Reuters, “Turkish MP dies after suffering heart attack in parliament,” December 14, 2024.

[2] “Saadet Partili Merhum Hasan Bitmez, Fatih Cami’de dualarla Hakk’a uğurlandı,” Youtube, December 15, 2023.

[3] “Gaza: The Case for Middle East Peace | Davos Annual Meeting 2009,” Youtube, January 29, 2009.

[4] Hürriyet Daily News, “CHP leader promises aid to Gaza,” October 31, 2023.

[5] Bianet, “Fidan’a göre, İsrail ile ilişkiler Filistin davasına zarar vermiyor,” December 5, 2023.

[6]  Hürriyet Daily News, “CHP calls on Erdoğan to go to Palestine with all party leaders,” November 29, 2023.


How to cite this article:

Umar Farooq, Michael Kaplan "Calling Erdogan’s Bluff on Palestine," Middle East Report Online, February 21, 2024.

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