Erdogan in tense talks in Germany as divisions over Gaza war deepen

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on a brief and tense visit to Germany amid deep differences between the two NATO allies over the war in Gaza.

Erdogan has called Israel a “terror state” and pointed to its Western allies, including Germany, for supporting the military’s “massacres” in Gaza.

On Friday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz underlined Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Our solidarity with Israel is not up for discussion,” he said at a joint news conference with Erdogan.

“We don’t owe anything to Israel, so we can speak freely,” Erdogan said, referring to Germany’s responsibilities in the Holocaust and how Berlin can influence its relationship with Israel. “If we were in debt, we could not talk so freely. But those who are in debt cannot talk freely,” he said.

The Turkish leader also lashed out at Israel over its relentless air and ground offensive in Gaza, saying that attacks on children and hospitals had no place in the Jewish holy book.

“Shooting hospitals or killing children does not exist in the Torah, you can’t do it,” Erdogan told reporters.

Ismail Thawabta, the director general of the government media office in Gaza, told reporters on Friday that the total number of Palestinians killed since the war broke out on October 7 has exceeded 12,000, including 5,000 children.

Before the visit, the Turkish leader stepped up his condemnation of the Israeli assault on the besieged Gaza Strip, saying it had “unlimited support” from the West.

He had previously called for Israeli leaders to be tried for war crimes at the International Court of Justice in The Hague and repeated his view – and Turkey’s longstanding position – that Hamas is not a “terrorist organisation” but a political party that won the last Palestinian legislative elections held in 2006.

Since October 7, when Hamas fighters stormed southern Israel killing around 1,200 people, and prompting the Israeli government to retaliate with a devastating air and ground assault on Gaza, the Turkish president has hardened his criticism of Israel.

After the Hamas attack, Scholz travelled to Israel to offer Germany’s support.

This month, Germany announced a complete ban of Hamas activities, as well as those of the German branch of Samidoun, known as the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, claiming it “supports and glorifies” groups including Hamas.

Uncomfortable partners

The two countries have always been, as characterised by Scholz’s spokesman, “uncomfortable partners”.

Berlin has been a loud critic of Erdogan’s clampdown on domestic dissent while recognising that getting regional power Turkey onside was necessary to tackle thorny issues.

Despite their differences, economic cooperation between the two countries has continued, with bilateral trade reaching a record 51.6 billion euros ($56.2bn) in 2022.

Germany is home to the largest Turkish diaspora abroad. A majority of the Turkish community of three million are supporters of Erdogan.

Erdogan’s stance sparked questions in Germany about the wisdom of hosting the Turkish leader at this time, with the opposition conservatives and even the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), a member of Scholz’s coalition, urging the chancellor to scrap the invitation.

While much of the news conference was dominated by the Israel-Hamas conflict, the two leaders also spoke about the Russia-Ukraine grain deal, which Turkey helped broker before Russia withdrew from it.

They were set to attempt to find common ground on a migration pact struck in 2016 between the European Union and Turkey to stem arrivals in Europe.

Erdogan linked continuing discussions on that deal, which some European countries would like to revive and amend, to Turkey’s EU accession process, which was been on ice.

He also hoped to win Scholz’s backing to revive talks on modernising Turkey’s customs union with the EU, and liberalise visas for Turkish citizens ahead of upcoming municipal elections where he hopes to win back the country’s largest cities including its capital Ankara and Istanbul.

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