May 26, 2024

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Middle East crisis: Trade and diplomatic moves deepen Israel's isolation

Middle East crisis: Trade and diplomatic moves deepen Israel’s isolation

Turkey’s decision to suspend trade with Israel highlights growing global pressure to end the war in Gaza, even as Israeli leaders insist they will not end the campaign before eliminating Hamas rule in the Strip.

Israel’s international isolation has escalated as its devastating military assault on Gaza continues, with no end in sight. Some countries reduced or severed their relations with Israel. Close partners, such as the United States, Britain, and Germany, while remaining strongly supportive of Israel, have become more publicly critical of its behavior and restrictions on humanitarian aid to Gaza.

This week, Colombia became the second country in South America to sever its relations with Israel, after Bolivia. On the day Bolivia made its announcement, both Colombia and Chile said they would recall their ambassadors to Israel. Honduras followed suit Within days. Belize also severed diplomatic relations with Israel that month.

Arab countries such as Jordan and Bahrain, with which Israel closely cooperates in the security field, also recalled their ambassadors amid popular protest over the high death toll in Gaza. The Israeli attack also hampered US-led efforts to reach an agreement to normalize diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped would be a key part of his legacy.

The Biden administration, Israel’s most important ally, has shown no sign of withdrawing military support, even as it warned of an Israeli invasion of Rafah, in southern Gaza, where more than a million people are sheltering. Israel got a reprieve this week when a UN court refused to order Germany, Israel’s second-largest arms supplier after the United States, to suspend those arms sales.

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However, the moves by Turkey and others highlight how the war in Gaza, now nearly seven months old, is exacting an increasing toll on Israel’s global standing.

Israel and Turkey have witnessed a rapprochement in recent years. In 2022, the two countries announced that they would restore full diplomatic relations. They were already close trading partners, with Turkey sending nearly $4.6 billion in exports to Israel in 2023, according to Israeli government statistics.

Just a few weeks before Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Mr. Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met for the first time in New York during the United Nations General Assembly. Netanyahu’s office said at the time that the two leaders agreed to visit their countries.

But now hopes for improved relations appear to have been dashed. After the Hamas-led attack on Israel, Mr. Erdogan was quick to take a strong rhetorical stance in favor of the Palestinian armed group, which he called the “PLO;” He met with Hamas leaders in late April, sparking further Israeli anger.

Erdogan said on Friday that the decision to suspend trade was an attempt to pressure Israel to reach a ceasefire with Hamas. Israel and mediators such as Qatar, Egypt and the United States are still waiting for Hamas’ response to the truce proposal submitted this week. US officials, including CIA chief William Burns, who was in Cairo on Friday for talks, have blamed Hamas for the failure to reach an agreement.

“We have one goal, which is to force the Netanyahu administration, which has spiraled out of control with unconditional military and diplomatic support from the West, to a ceasefire,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara on Friday. Once a ceasefire is declared and sufficient humanitarian aid is allowed into Gaza, this goal will be achieved.”

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The decision to close imports and exports with Israel is highly unusual for Erdogan, who has generally allowed close economic ties to flourish amid high political tension, said Galia Lindenstrauss, a Turkish foreign policy expert at the Institute for National Studies. Security Studies Research Center in Tel Aviv.

Lindenstrauss said it was likely that Mr. Erdogan hoped to capitalize on the issue to stave off growing domestic frustration over his two-decade rule, in which opposition leaders won a series of municipalities during local elections earlier this year. She added that there is also an attempt “to exploit Israel’s weakness, specifically Netanyahu’s weakness, to continue to weaken Israel and gain regional influence.”

Many of Israel’s closest allies are now demanding a ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. In March, the United Nations Security Council issued a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip during the holy month of Ramadan.

The war has also led to renewed calls by some countries to recognize Palestinian statehood, a largely symbolic move but one strongly opposed by Mr. Netanyahu. Spain and Ireland, among other European countries, have said they are working to recognize the state of Palestine.

Washington has long said it supports the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, but any recognition must come after negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

The changing tone reflects the high cost of the war to the Palestinians. Over the past seven months, the war has killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to local health officials. The Israeli attack followed a Hamas-led attack on October 7 that left about 1,200 people dead and another 250 hostages, according to Israeli officials.