Minister Katz: Erdogan exposed his true face

Israel pulls diplomats from Turkey to reassess ties as Erdogan blasts its ‘war crimes’

Turkish president escalates rhetoric as he tells hundreds of thousands at Istanbul rally that the West is the main culprit behind the Israeli army’s ‘massacre’ in Gaza

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks to attendees during a rally to show their solidarity with Palestinians, in Istanbul, Turkey, October 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks to attendees during a rally to show their solidarity with Palestinians, in Istanbul, Turkey, October 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Israel on Saturday said it was pulling its diplomats out of Turkey to “reassess relations” as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to lash the Jewish state for its actions in the Gaza Strip.

“In light of the escalating rhetoric from Turkey, I have instructed the return of diplomatic representatives from Turkey in order to reassess Israel-Turkey relations,” Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said in a statement.

His announcement came as Erdogan told a mass pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul on Saturday that his country was making preparations to proclaim Israel a “war criminal” for its actions in Gaza.

In his address to hundreds of thousands of people who joined the rally, Erdogan also held Western countries responsible for the deaths in Gaza for failing to stop Israeli attacks.

“Israel, we will proclaim you as a war criminal to the world,” Erdogan said. “We are making our preparations, and we will declare Israel to the world as a war criminal.”

Erdogan, whose government only recently restored full diplomatic ties with Israel, has massively stepped up his criticism of the country. Earlier this week, he asserted that the Hamas terror group was not a terrorist organization but a liberation group of “mujahideen” fighting for its lands and people.

Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz, who is set to take over as foreign minister next year, said Erdogan “exposed his true face” at the rally.

“The man of the Muslim Brotherhood supports Hamas-Daesh terror,” Katz wrote on X. “Even his kaffiyeh will not cover up the shame.”

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan said: “A snake will remain a snake.”

“[Erdogan] tried to improve his image, but remains an antisemite,” Erdan was quoted as saying by Army Radio.

Participants at the rally waved Turkish and Palestinian flags, chanting “God is great.” Yusuf Islam, the musician formerly known as Cat Stevens, took part in the rally.

At the rally, Erdogan called Western powers “the main culprit” behind the Israeli army’s “massacre” of Palestinians in Gaza.

“Of course, every country has the right to defend itself. But where is the justice in this case?”

He accused Western powers of “shedding tears” over the death of civilians in Ukraine and turning a blind eye to the death of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks to attendees during a rally to show their solidarity with Palestinians, in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

“We are against all these double standards and all these hypocrisies,” he said.

And he accused Israel’s allies of creating a “crusade war atmosphere” pitting Christians against Muslims.

“Listen to our call for dialogue,” Erdogan said. “No one loses from a just peace.”

He took a more cautious line in the first days after Hamas terrorists staged a surprise attack on October 7 during which they murdered more than 1,400 people in southern Israel, the majority of them civilians, and seized more than 230 hostages. But he has become much more vocal as the reported death toll from Israel’s military response has grown.

The Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza said Saturday that Israel had killed 7,703 people — mainly civilians, with more than 3,500 of them children. The figures could not be independently verified and did not provide figures on combatants killed. Israel says some 1,500 terrorists were killed in the October 7 attack.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting on the conflict in Middle East at the UN headquarters in New York City on October 24, 2023. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)

On Wednesday Erdogan had said that Hamas was not a terrorist organization, but were “mujahideen” defending their homeland.

Israel “can view Hamas as a terrorist organization, along with the West,” said Erdogan, speaking to a gathering of his AK Party faction in parliament. “The West owes you a lot. But Turkey does not owe you anything.”

“Hamas is not a terrorist organization, it is a group of mujahideen defending their lands,” he said to a standing ovation. “Mujahideen” is an Arabic term for those engaged in jihad, or holy war.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said afterward that “Israel wholeheartedly rejects the Turkish president’s harsh words about the terrorist organization Hamas.”

Haiat added that Hamas is a “despicable terrorist organization worse than ISIS,” and that “even the Turkish president’s attempt to defend the terrorist organization and his inciting words will not change the horrors that the whole world has seen and the unequivocal fact: Hamas = ISIS.”

Israel says it has been hitting terror targets in the Strip as part of its campaign against Hamas since October 7, when some 2,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel, killing some 1,400 people and seizing over 230 hostages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — men and women, children and the elderly.

The remains of Kibbutz Be’eri, destroyed by Hamas attack on October 7, photographed on October 20, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Erdogan has not officially condemned Hamas’s slaughter of Israeli civilians.

Erdogan’s speech in Ankara recalled comments he has made in recent years defending Hamas.

“Hamas is not a terrorist organization and Palestinians are not terrorists,” he tweeted in 2018 as a “reminder” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It is a resistance movement that defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.”

Erdogan has not been shy about calling the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, terrorists, and ordering military operations against them. Earlier this month, Erdogan announced “intensified air operations” against the PKK in the wake of an Ankara suicide bombing, pledging to “show the terrorists that we can destroy them anywhere and at any moment.”

Netanyahu has also called the PKK a “terrorist organization.”

Erdogan also told the AKP forum on Wednesday he is canceling plans to visit Israel because of its “inhumane” war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 19, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

“We had a project to go to Israel, but it was canceled, we will not go,” Erdogan said.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, speaking in Qatar, accused Israel of “a crime against humanity” in its campaign in Gaza.

“Targeting our Palestinian brothers, including children, patients and the elderly, even in schools, hospitals and mosques, is a crime against humanity,” he said, alongside Qatari FM Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

Erdogan has been critical of Israel since its campaign against Hamas began in the wake of the October 7 massacres.

Last week, Erdogan called for Israel to stop its military action.

“It is clear that security cannot be ensured by bombing hospitals, schools, mosques and churches,” Erdogan said in a statement. “I reiterate our call on the Israeli government not to expand the scope of its attacks against civilians and to immediately stop its operations that are bordering genocide.”

Erdogan’s defense of Hamas and accusations against Israel put heavy strain on efforts to warm ties over the past year and a half, after years of animosity.

Israel was a long-time regional ally of Turkey before Erdogan came to power, but ties imploded after a 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship, part of a blockade-busting flotilla, that left dead 10 Turkish activists who attacked IDF soldiers aboard the ship.

Netanyahu and Erdogan repeatedly aimed brickbats at each other in the ensuing years, including mutual charges of genocide. In July 2014, Erdogan accused the Jewish state of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” during a war with Gaza.

Ties later saw a moderate improvement, but both countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2018 amid violence in Gaza and the Trump administration’s relocation of its embassy to Jerusalem.

Facing hardening diplomatic isolation and economic woes, Erdogan began to publicly display an openness toward rapprochement in December 2020. In August of last year, Israel and Turkey announced a full renewal of diplomatic ties.

In late September, Erdogan met with Netanyahu in New York for their first known sit-down and the two enthusiastically discussed avenues of cooperation. President Isaac Herzog was hosted by Erdogan last March in Ankara — the first high-level Israeli visit since 2008 — and Foreign Minister Cohen met the Turkish leader in February. Then-prime minister Yair Lapid met with Erdogan in New York during last year’s General Assembly.

At the same time, Turkey maintains deep ties with Hamas. Erdogan has been in close contact with the Hamas leadership since the start of the war, and has allowed the terror group to operate from an office in Istanbul for over a decade, insisting that it only hosts the group’s political wing. However, in 2020, Israel provided Turkish intelligence with evidence that members of Hamas’s military wing operate in the office, under the supervision of Beirut-based Saleh al-Arouri.

From that office, Hamas terrorists have allegedly planned terror attacks against Israel and devised ways to transfer funds to the terror group’s activists in the West Bank.

In an interview with Turkish TV last week, Qatar-based former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said he has “great respect for Turkey,” adding that “Turkey should say ‘stop’” to Israel, according to Al-Monitor. The former leader has repeatedly met with Erdogan over the years, and in an address to members of Erdogan’s party in 2014, he said he hoped to “liberate Palestine and Jerusalem” with them.

A recent poll showed that the majority of Turkish citizens want Erdogan to remain neutral or to mediate in the war.

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