Erdogan’s trade embargo on Israel is entirely self-serving

Turkiye’s suspension of 54 export categories to Israel does not arise from moral solidarity with Palestinians but is instead shaped by a bleeding economy, Erdogan’s recent electoral loss, and his desire to re-align with Washington.

On the evening of 8 April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led a significant meeting at the Presidential Palace in Bastepe, Ankara. His deputy, Cevdet Yilmaz, Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, Trade Minister Omar Polat, and other notable figures were in attendance.

The group of political heavyweights had gathered to discuss Israel’s refusal of a Turkish proposal to airlift much-needed humanitarian aid into Gaza. In response, under Erdogan’s direction, Polat announced a directive to halt the export of 54 types of products to Israel, effective immediately.

The Ministry of Commerce’s circular states that the ban is aimed at forcing Israel to uphold its “international legal obligations” and would remain in effect “until Tel Aviv agrees to a ceasefire in Gaza and permits the entry of aid.”

The Turkish ‘embargo’ covers a range of items, including military jet fuel, cement, various chemicals and fertilizers, motor oils, steel products, aluminum items like barbed wire and fiber cables, paints, steel containers, sulfur, concrete mixers, cranes, glass, and other metal goods.

Has Turkiye’s stance changed?

Earlier this year, on 4 January, after widespread domestic criticism over Turkiye’s continued trade with Tel Aviv amidst its Gaza aggressions, the Turkish Ministry of Trade refuted media exposures detailing increased export sales to Israel. Instead, the ministry insisted that Turkish goods were being shipped to Palestinian populations in occupied territories – and not to the Israeli market.

It must be noted that all goods destined for Palestinian areas continue to be processed via Israeli customs authorities under the label of Israel.

But domestic ire against Erdogan continued to grow, culminating in significant losses to his party in Turkiye’s recent municipal elections. Following extensive reports of state violence against protesters demanding a halt in trade with Tel Aviv, Ankara finally opted to stop exporting the 54 product categories to Israel.

The move contradicts Erdogan’s narrative that Turkish goods were destined for Palestinians, casting doubts on those initial claims and highlighting the long-problematic inconsistencies of his policies.

Data from Turkiye’s statistics office indicates that during the first five months of the war on Gaza, Turkish exports to Israel totaled $1.9 billion, with manufactured goods, including building materials, constituting a significant portion.

With only one operational cement plant, Israel’s construction sector heavily relies on imports: About 70 percent of its iron building materials and a third of its cement needs are sourced from neighboring Turkiye. Turkish imports make up about 11 percent of Israel’s market for plastic and rubber products and approximately 10 percent for textiles.

A cessation of cement imports from Turkiye will exacerbate pressures on Israel’s already strained construction sector, which was heavily reliant on Palestinian labor and, therefore, severely impacted by the Gaza war.

According to industry insiders, these new trade restrictions will also likely drive up housing prices in the occupation state.

Reasons for ‘change’

Three primary factors appear to have influenced Erdogan’s decision to halt a significant portion of Turkiye’s exports to Israel:

Firstly, the recent rapprochement between Ankara and the US has played a critical role.

Over the past few years, the Turkish president has increasingly aligned with Washington’s regional interests as part of his strategy to alleviate Turkiye’s deepening economic crisis – characterized by soaring inflation rates of 68.5 percent (in March), sharply rising interest rates and a depreciating national currency.

Ankara’s re-entry into the US camp is likely responsible for Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek’s announcement of a $35 billion loan agreement with the World Bank, secured in installments over three years.

In the context of this US–Turkish rapprochement and their mutual fear of military escalation in West Asia stemming from Israel’s brutal, six-month assault on Gaza, Turkiye’s export ban is also likely a calculated pressure tactic – administered via a US ally – from the Biden administration’s strategy to rein in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s excesses.

Secondly, the growing perception that Tel Aviv’s Gaza campaign is failing, unpopular, and unable to achieve its objectives has also influenced Erdogan’s u-turn on trade with Israel.

A consummate political opportunist, Erdogan is re-aligning himself with the party he believes will emerge victorious and repositioning Turkiye to be remembered positively in the historical narrative.

Lastly, domestic political pressures stemming from his municipal election failures have impacted Erdogan’s decision-making. The trade boom with Israel is a highly charged domestic issue that arguably influenced the outcome of that election, in which Erdogan’s party suffered substantial losses.

In response, the Turkish president has recalibrated his policies to regain favor, particularly among religious voters who opposed any form of economic engagement with Israel. This strategic shift is likely an attempt to consolidate support domestically by aligning Turkiye’s foreign policy with the sentiments of its more conservative constituents.

Election loss alarms Erdogan

On 31 March, Turkish local elections were held across its 81 provinces and 972 municipalities, featuring 1,053 candidates from 34 parties and drawing the participation of 48 million voters – an almost seven percent drop from the previous poll.

It was the lowest turnout since 2004, with the highest absenteeism seen among supporters of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

His party’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), secured 37.7 percent of the vote, an achievement not seen since the 1997 elections. The AKP came in second with 35.5 percent, followed by the Welfare Party with 6.19 percent of the total vote.

Several factors contributed to the AKP’s loss, chiefly Turkiye’s harrowing economic challenges and Erdogan’s demonstrated inability to curb the crisis. Additionally, his underwhelming positions on the Gaza war—particularly the Israel-trade scandal—prompted some of his voters to shift their support to the Islamist Welfare Party.

The rise of the Welfare Party particularly alarmed Erdogan and his team, as their support, combined with the AKP’s, could have significantly altered the election’s outcome.

Over recent years, the AKP has increasingly distanced itself from its Islamic roots, favoring more nationalistic and somewhat secular policies, which has led to a decline in its traditional support base.

The municipal election results are a watershed moment in Turkish politics, not just because they expose widespread public discontent but also for potentially forcing Erdogan further into a western strategic realignment to save his economic legacy.

Ankara’s decision to embargo 54 export categories to Israel, while ostensibly a move to appeal to Erdogan’s Islamist base and exert pressure in line with US demands, reveals a more pragmatic foreign policy approach rather than the principled stand he wishes to convey to Turks and Muslims.

While the trade ban will impact Israel’s construction sector and raise real estate costs, it is more an extension of US strategies to influence Israeli policies rather than a support for Palestinian rights.

If Erdogan’s administration was, in fact, committed to an immediate Gaza ceasefire, critics argue that more direct measures, such as halting the transit of oil from Asia to Israel through Turkiye – constituting a whopping 62 percent of Israel’s total oil imports – would be more indicative of genuine support.

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