Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently claimed that Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo was subjected to a “political ban” at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 for his purported support for the Palestinian cause. “They have wasted Ronaldo. Unfortunately, they have imposed a political ban on him,” Erdogan was reported to have said on Sunday while speaking at a youth event in Turkey. The president added, “Ronaldo is someone who stands for the Palestinian cause.”
It is not clear what was the basis of Erdogan’s claim. Ronaldo has never publicly issued a statement in favour of Palestinians. However, there are several doctored videos which are viral on social media in which Ronaldo is seen supporting the Palestinian cause by expressing solidarity with Palestinians or avoiding handshaking with Israeli officials.
Since the elections in Turkey will be held this year in June, this was yet another attempt by Erdogan to appropriate the Palestinian cause for his electoral gains.
Erdogan’s Desperate Attempt to Restore Relations with Israel
It is pertinent to mention that Erdogan recently lobbied desperately with Israeli president Isaac Herzog to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries. The diplomatic relations between the two countries were recently normalized in November last year with Turkey appointing an ambassador to Israel after a gap of four years.
A week before Erdogan appointed his ambassador to Israel, he had sent a congratulatory letter to Netanyahu for winning the Israeli elections. “I congratulate you on your victory in the elections and believe that the new government will continue the cooperation between the countries in all fields in a way that will bring peace and stability to our region,” he wrote.
Erdogan’s desperation to restore relations with Israel came because of the economic woes and the isolation it had felt in the region. It is also a calculated move as Turkey’s relations with the US have deteriorated. Erdogan seems to be banking on the strong Jewish lobby in the US to lobby for Turkey. Even though Turkey is a NATO member, the US recently imposed CAATSA sanctions on Turkey over the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. There is also a history of Jews lobbying for Turkey in the US.
A Deep Freeze in Turkey-Israeli Relations
Turkey-Israel relations went into a deep freeze in 2010 when Israeli commandos stormed and killed 10 Turkish citizens on board the Mavi Marmara, a ship that was part of an aid flotilla trying to breach the blockade of Gaza. Israel later apologized and provided compensation to the families of those killed. Subsequently, the two countries normalized the bilateral relations in 2016. However, when the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2018, the relations between the two countries again deteriorated after Israeli forces killed 60 Palestinian protestors in Gaza. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara and withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv.
Turkey-Israel Relations Based on Realpolitik
Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize the existence of the state of Israel. The country formally recognized Israel barely nine months after it came into existence in March 1949. Turkey was also the first country in the Middle East and Asia to recognize Israel. The relationship between the two countries was based on mutual interests and common strategic goals. The circumstances in which Israel came into existence and its quest for legitimacy made it important for Israel to have relations with Turkey.
Therefore, Israel viewed the non-Arab Muslim majority Turkey in the vicinity, as a key to breaking its isolation. For Turkey’s rulers also, relations with Israel were based on realpolitik. At that time, the relations with Israel were the bellwether of its commitment to Western orientation. Hence, the reasons for the establishment of relations with Israel included help in Turkey’s relations with the West and access to American credit mechanisms.
Bilateral Trade Between the Two Countries
Despite all these confrontations, Israel holds an important position in Turkey’s politics and economy. The two countries have decoupled the bilateral trade from politics.
As is evident from the chart on bilateral trade, the political issues between the two countries did not affect the trade. Politically, Turkey’s relations with Israel are based on political expediency. When Turkey feels it has something to gain from its friendship with Israel, it normalizes ties and when it thinks it can profit from snapping ties with Israel, it downgrades relations with Israel.
There is an inherent tension that has always defined Turkish-Israeli relations. On the one hand, Turkey used Israel’s leverage in corridors of power, particularly in the United States, to accrue benefits for state interests, strategic priorities and security. On the other hand, the Turkish public has always been sympathetic to the cause of Palestine. Therefore, due to domestic pressure, the politicians in Ankara cannot ignore the Palestinian issue completely.
Right now, as Erdogan reaches out to Israel for mending relations, the leaders in Israel are wary that Erdogan wants to leverage the normalized relations to improve the economy of the country as well as his image. After achieving these goals, Erdogan may do with the relations whatever he wishes depending on the kind of issues he would be facing. In the case of domestic politics, normal ties with Israel will not be helpful but in the case of international issues, friendship with Israel can always pay off. Hence, when it comes to elections Erdogan is right now using the Palestinian cause for his electoral gains while at the same time, he is improving ties with Israel to promote Turkey’s interests.
Palestinian Cause and Elections in Muslim Majority Countries
Like Turkey, the Palestinian cause is an issue that is a major electoral issue in most of the Muslim-majority countries around the world. However, it is a shame that political leaders like Erdogan appropriate a just cause for their electoral gains but forget it once the elections are complete. Muslim populations around the world must ensure that their leaders are not only using the Palestinian cause for electoral gains but are also taking credible action towards supporting the Palestinian population in their just cause.