Expert on Arab affairs Marianna Belenkaya talks about Israel's anticipation of Iran's response, Israeli relations with Indonesia and Turkey, and the ongoing military action in Gaza.

Last week was marked by the anticipation of Iran's response to Israel for the elimination of high-ranking officers of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. However, the focus remained on the diplomatic arena. Iran was actively engaging with Muslim countries, trying to push them towards joint actions against Israel, if not military, then at least economic. Tehran received support from Ankara, which restricted export shipments to the Jewish state.\

Meanwhile, unexpected reports emerged that Indonesia—the country with the largest Muslim population—is ready to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. However, Jakarta vehemently denies this, asserting that it is impossible against the backdrop of the war in Gaza. The military operation in the Strip continues, and the hopes that mediators had at the beginning of the week for a ceasefire have yet to be realized.

Awaiting Iran's response

The week was spent in anticipation of a tense Iranian response to the strike on a building belonging to their consulate in Damascus on April 1, for which they blamed Israel. The attack resulted in the death of at least 13 people, including seven Iranian military advisors, among them Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi.

Speculations on how and when Iran might respond to Israel varied throughout the week. Discussions fluctuated between a strike on Israeli or Jewish targets in third countries and a direct strike on Israeli territory. While initially, it was not ruled out that Iran might directly retaliate against the Israelis, by the end of the week, the prevailing view was that it would do so through its proxies—the forces of the "axis of resistance," which include the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi movement Ansar Allah, and numerous Shiite groups in Iraq and Syria. Media reports consistently referred either to US intelligence data or to regional sources. In any case, the main question was when Iran would respond, not if it would. Israeli authorities promised to respond directly to any attack. However, there were also some reassuring signals.

The USA and a number of European countries conducted a real diplomatic marathon, attempting to exert pressure from various sides on Tehran to prevent further escalation in the Middle East. On Thursday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and British Foreign Minister David Cameron both called their Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. They requested that Tehran refrain from attacking Israel. There was also a call from French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné. At the request of the USA, his colleagues from Iraq, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia also spoke with the Iranian minister. According to some reports, representatives from more than 12 countries contacted the Iranian leadership.

Simultaneously, in Washington, at various levels, including President Joe Biden, it was made clear that the US would unequivocally support Israel in the event of an Iranian strike. General Michael Erik Kurilla, the commander of United States Central Command, responsible for military operations in the Middle East, flew to Israel on Thursday to personally discuss the situation with the country's military leadership. The focus was on air and missile defense issues.

Meanwhile, the London-based newspaper The New Arab reports, citing sources in Iran, that Tehran rejected the mediators' request not to respond to the Israeli strike and advised them instead to restrain Israel both "in its aggression against Gaza" and in "malicious attempts aimed at expanding the war regionally." Iran also once again warned the US not to interfere. Sources confirmed to The New Arab that the Iranian armed forces "have been on high alert for a week and have canceled vacations in recent days. "

During this time, Iran also showed increased diplomatic activity. The week began with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian's visit to Damascus, where he ostentatiously opened a new building for the Iranian consulate next to the attacked building. He stated, "response to Israel will be determined and decided upon on the spot." This can be seen as Tehran's decision to respond to the Israelis through its proxies. However, one can never be entirely sure what Iran decided until the end.

The first foreign trip of the Iranian Foreign Minister after the attack in Damascus is interesting for two more reasons. It happened against the backdrop of hints in Iranian media that the recent increase in deaths of Iranian officers in Syria is linked to "betrayal." That is, someone among the Syrians is informing the Israelis about the locations and timings of the Iranians. There were also complaints about Russia not protecting Syrian airspace and allowing Israeli planes to penetrate it, but this is not new. Thus, one of the objectives of Amir-Abdollahian's visit to Damascus was presumably to remind the Syrian leadership of their obligations to Tehran. The demonstration of solidarity was successful.

But what's particularly interesting is that the Iranian minister flew to Damascus from Muscat. Given that Oman has long played a role as a mediator in the dialogue between Iran and the USA, this is also a significant signal. Despite threats toward Washington, Iranian authorities do not miss opportunities for dialogue aimed at exploring options for de-escalation in the region. A day before, Reuters reported that Tehran sent a message to Washington through the Omanis: Iran's response to Israel would not be hasty, and everything would be done to avoid serious escalation in the region. According to the Arabic-language site Jadeh Iran, as part of the negotiations, Iran is willing to consider a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. This is also confirmed by Reuters sources and the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, close to Hezbollah and Damascus. According to the latter, the discussion involved a general ceasefire and Israel's abandonment of an operation in Rafah – particularly in the south of the Gaza Strip. However, it is claimed that the Iranians have not yet received a response to their proposals. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the week in Washington, it was stated that if Tehran wants a ceasefire in Gaza, it must use all its power to pressure Hamas to accept a deal concerning this issue and the return of Israeli hostages. This is not simple.

Therefore, weighing various options, Tehran continues to try to involve other Muslim countries in its confrontation with Israel. On Thursday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the isolation of Israel—cutting off political and economic ties. Such statements from Khamenei have been made repeatedly since the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But this time, it seems his words found a recipient in Turkey, although Ankara's decision to limit exports to Israel was taken for internal reasons.

Erdogan reduces exports to Israel

Mid-week, Turkey announced the imposition of export restrictions on Israel. These will affect 54 types of goods, including steel, aluminum, paints, cables, and aviation fuel. The list may be expanded. It was noted that these measures will remain in effect until Israel complies with a UN Security Council resolution regarding a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and ensures sufficient delivery of humanitarian aid there. 

Ankara's decision came in response to Israel's blocking of the airdrop of Turkish humanitarian aid to the residents of the Gaza Strip. Following the announcement of the export restrictions, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on the USA to ban investments in Turkey and impose an embargo on importing its goods. 

Ankara's decision to limit exports represents the first serious sanctions Turkey has imposed on Israel during the six months of fighting in the Gaza Strip. However, Ankara has been sharply critical of Israel from the start, and the ambassadors of the two countries were recalled to their capitals. Additionally, last autumn, Ankara suspended the implementation of energy projects with Israeli companies, affecting exports.

In 2023, the trade turnover between Turkey and Israel exceeded $7 billion, of which more than $5.4 billion was Turkish exports. According to data published by the Turkish Exporters Assembly, although trade with Israel fell from October 7 after the start of the war in the Gaza Strip, exports to Israel increased each month in 2024. However, the total volume of exports in the year's first quarter was still 21.6% less than the previous year, reaching $1.1 billion. Now, there may be no growth at all, and sanctions could only expand. In particular, Turkish Airlines has extended the ban on flights from and to Tel Aviv.

For many years, President Erdogan, aspiring to be a leading figure in the Islamic world, has supported the Palestinians. His rhetoric and actions sharply contrasted with many Arab leaders, who appeared more restrained. However, in this war between Israel and Hamas, Ankara's role was less noticeable. Just a year before the war, relations between Turkey and Israel began to mend after a long hiatus. In September 2023, Erdogan met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. After the onset of the war between Israel and Hamas, Turkey tried to sit on two chairs but ultimately took a distinctly anti-Israel stance, losing the trust of Israel. However, Turkish authorities were slow to take harsh measures against Israel. As a result, Turkey faded into the background compared to Arab countries such as Egypt and Qatar, which took on the negotiations between the parties and also significantly yielded to Iran, which rallied around the so-called Muslim street.

Now, Erdogan is urgently changing his strategy, primarily due to domestic reasons. The anti-Israel stance traditionally associated with him has been adopted by others, particularly by the Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP), which secured third place in the municipal elections in Turkey at the end of March. Previously, YRP was in a coalition with the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) led by Erdogan but left just three weeks before the elections. YRP became an alternative for those who did not want to vote for the opposition, which is considered unpatriotic in conservative circles, but who were also dissatisfied with Erdogan. Among the reasons for criticism of the current government, alongside economic problems, was its soft policy towards Israel. During the election campaign, YRP leader Fatih Erbakan frequently attacked the country's authorities and personally Erdogan for continuing trade with Israel. Essentially, he began to act as Erdogan did in earlier years.

However, it is important not to underestimate the pressure and criticism directed at Turkey from the Muslim street. For instance, following Ankara's decision to suspend exports, the newspaper The New Arab published an article titled "Turkey and Israel… Coming Too Late." It highlighted that many in the Arab and Islamic world had expected greater solidarity from Turkey with the population of the Gaza Strip and more stringent measures against Israel. It was also emphasized that this week's decision would have been more effective in October. Qatar finances the New Arab, and Ankara and Doha have always been close and aligned on many foreign policy issues. But apparently, Qatar is not very pleased with Turkey. 

Last week, President Erdogan spoke twice with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi. In their latest conversation, which took place on Wednesday, Raisi, like Ayatollah Khamenei, called on Muslim countries to sever economic relations with Israel.

What Indonesia thinks

Amid Iranian calls and actions by Turkey, sensational news emerged on Thursday in the Israeli media. It was reported that Indonesia is ready to normalize relations with Israel, provided that its application for membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is advanced. The OECD is an international economic organization of developed countries that recognizes the principles of representative democracy and a free market economy. Currently, it includes 38 countries, including Israel, which had previously objected to Indonesia's accession to this club.

Israeli sources spoke of months-long secret negotiations between Jerusalem, Jakarta, and the OECD Secretary-General. Initially, the discussions focused on reducing Indonesia's criticism of Israel. This is particularly important now as Jakarta supported South Africa's lawsuit against Israel at the International Court of Justice, accusing the Jewish state of genocide against the Palestinian people. However, Israel demanded more – an announcement of the normalization of relations between the countries, which would be a significant diplomatic victory for Israel amid the war, considering that Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority country. Normalization with it would be comparable to a similar process with Saudi Arabia, which has stalled due to the war.

In Israel, it is claimed that Indonesia has agreed to this step. Jakarta was quick to deny this. "To this day, there are no plans to open diplomatic ties with Israel, especially amid Israel's atrocities in Gaza. Indonesia's stance has not changed, and we consistently remain firm in support of Palestine's independence within the framework of the two-state solution," stated an official spokesperson for the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However, this does not mean that negotiations and discussions regarding normalization did not take place. Reports about this appeared as early as March. It was noted then that normalization was planned to be announced in October 2023. Discussions also included opening economic liaison offices in both countries, but the war in Gaza disrupted this. Jakarta also denied this information, but the rumors were likely not entirely unfounded, especially since the two countries have long maintained quiet economic contacts. Even without official ties, direct and indirect trade between Israel and Indonesia amounts to about $500 million a year, according to Rebecca Zeffert, the executive director of the Israel-Asia Center.

In addition, tourism between the countries is permitted. Abdurrahman Wahid, who served as President of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001, visited Israel. In turn, Israeli President Shimon Peres went to Indonesia. However, both politicians made their trips before they held presidential office.

"It appears that there is a certain degree of understanding in Indonesia that the lack of diplomatic relations with Israel will make it difficult for Indonesia to fulfill its ambition of playing an important role in promoting a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," states a report published in 2021 by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). It is emphasized that Indonesia's official policy remains unchanged: diplomatic relations with Israel can only be established once an independent Palestinian state is created with its capital in East Jerusalem. Essentially, this is also what Saudi Arabia is saying. And if Riyadh ever returns to the issue of normalization with Israel, why shouldn't Jakarta do the same? Both countries must consider the sentiments of their own populations and the overall political backdrop. The issue can only be revisited after the cessation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip, where prospects remain unclear.

The military operation continues

Israel continues its military operation in the Gaza Strip, although the news of the withdrawal of their 98th Brigade from Khan Yunis has generated various kinds of speculation. Among these, Arab sources have presented this as a defeat for the Israelis and their inability to achieve their objectives of destroying Hamas and freeing hostages. Often, in this argumentation, they relied on publications in the Israeli media itself, where there is quite a lot of criticism directed at the authorities—from the government to the military leadership.

The information about the withdrawal of the Israeli brigade coincided with reports on progress in negotiating a ceasefire in exchange for the return of hostages held in the Gaza Strip. At the beginning of the week, mediators—both the USA and Qatar—expressed optimism regarding the impending deal. However, as has happened before, sentiments shifted later. On Friday, sources of a Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar, close to Hezbollah and Damascus, reported that the leadership of Hamas had concluded that Israel does not intend to stop the war and that no amount of international pressure would change this stance.

According to Al-Akhbar, Hamas has informed Egyptian and Qatari mediators that it is no longer interested in any discussions until there is a resolution on four issues. These are: a definitive ceasefire throughout the Gaza Strip, the start of the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the area, the return of all displaced Palestinians to their homes accompanied by the commencement of the reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure, and the phased completion of the exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners according to parameters set by Hamas.

Importantly, according to information from the American network CNN, Hamas does not have 40 living Israeli hostages who meet the criteria set by mediators for the exchange—women, children, and elderly men. As reported by Al-Akhbar, Hamas claims that Israel demanded that if there were not 40 live civilians, they should be replaced with Israeli military personnel held in Gaza. The number of Palestinian prisoners that Israel was prepared to release in return was also limited (no more than 900). Hamas did not specify the number of Israelis to be released in their terms of the deal, while demanding the release of 30 prisoners for every released civilian (women, children up to 19 years old, and men over 50). For each surviving female soldier, they demanded the release of 50 prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment.

In this context, the statements by Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas's politburo, that negotiations with Israel will continue despite the deaths of his sons and grandsons in an Israeli military strike are quite understandable. However, for now, discussions are only proceeding on the basis of the aforementioned principles. That is, Hamas's position remains steadfast, and the loss of Haniyeh's family members has not significantly affected an already difficult situation. It would be unusual to see Hamas soften its stance following the news of the deaths of Haniyeh's family members.