turkey trouble

U.S. lawmakers call for possible sanctions against Turkey in response to new trade restrictions against Israel

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz accused Ankara of unilaterally violating its trade agreement with Israel

Burak Kara/Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to supporters at his party’s Istanbul mayoral candidate Murat Kurum's campaign rally on March 29, 2024 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Multiple senators said on Tuesday that the U.S. should consider retaliatory measures, including potential sanctions, against Turkey in response to its decision this week to impose trade restrictions on Israel.

The move from Ankara came after Israeli officials rejected Turkey’s attempts to participate in Gaza aid drops. Turkey has said the restrictions will remain in place until a cease-fire is reached in Gaza, and would apply to products including construction materials, fertilizer, construction equipment and jet fuel.

The decision from Turkey, which is sparking retaliatory moves in Israel, is the latest blow to the Israel-Turkey relationship which, alongside Israel’s other relationships in the Arab world, has suffered public setbacks since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks and ensuing war. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denied that Hamas is a terrorist group, sparking backlash from some U.S. lawmakers already wary of the often-unreliable NATO ally. A number of top Hamas officials, including Saleh al-Arouri, who was killed in Lebanon in January, have lived in and operated out of Turkey in recent years.

Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-NE) said the U.S. “should consider putting sanctions on Turkey, in response” to the move. Asked whether Ankara’s NATO status should be in question, Ricketts said that relationship should allow the U.S. to have greater influence over Turkey and make the case for Israel.

“Israel is fighting for the good of civilization here to destroy a terrorist group, and that’s what we need to be focused on,” Ricketts said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said he also thought U.S. trade restrictions could be an  “appropriate” response to confront Turkey’s behavior. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told JI that the U.S. should “consider what our response should be if nations take action against allies, whether it’s economic or military.” He didn’t specify what that response should entail.

Blumenthal expressed optimism, however, about the long-term prospects for Israel’s relationships in the Arab world, saying that from Riyadh to Amman to Cairo, there is a broad desire to continue and expand normalization with Israel once the current war ends.

“The longer the war in Gaza goes on, the more difficult it will be,” Blumenthal said. “But just to repeat, Israel has a right to defend itself, it has an obligation to secure its borders against that kind of horrific massacre that occurred on Oct. 7 and to make sure it never happens again.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a longtime critic of Ankara, pushed back on the notion that Turkey was in a position to criticize or retaliate against Israel. 

“Turkey has unclean hands when it talks about sanctioning or restricting trade with anyone else, because it creates a whole host of challenges in the region and it violates human rights both of its people and others,” Menendez told JI. “So, not only is it not appropriate from my perspective, they come to any argument on this with unclean hands.”

Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said he “would love to see a reaction from Congress” in retaliation to Turkey’s moves. “Congress needs to stand behind Israel in its insistence on destroying Hamas. If we don’t do that, there will not be peace in the Middle East,” he said. 

Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) said he thought a hearing on the issue “would be merited” and that he’ll discuss it with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair.

Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT) told JI on Tuesday that he hadn’t heard about the news, but thought that such pressure tactics were “an indication of the marginalization that Israel’s policies are imposing on itself, meaning the conditions in Gaza are horrific.”

“Now, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu says there is a date to begin military operations in Rafah, and that’s the most densely populated part of the world there is. There will be catastrophic consequences, so there’s widespread horror about what’s happening,” he continued. “I was not aware of Turkey making that decision but it reflects Israel and Netanyahu’s intransigence.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said that Turkey was unilaterally violating its trade agreement with Israel, and vowed a response. Foreign Minister Israel Katz instructed the ministry’s economic department to prepare a list of Israeli products to stop exporting to Turkey.

Katz also said Israel plans to push for American divestment from Turkey and for “friends in Congress to consider if Turkey is violating laws against boycotting Israel and apply sanctions if so.”

“Erdogan is sacrificing the economic interests of the residents of Turkey for his support for the Hamas murderers,” Katz said. “Israel will not give in to violence and extortion and will not stay silent when faced with Turkey’s unilateral violation of its trade agreement.”

Israeli Economy Minister Nir Barkat said that “Turkey proved that they cannot be trusted and they are acting together with Hamas, Qatar, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood against Israel.”

Barkat’s ministry, which deals with trade, among other issues, is looking for alternatives to Turkish imports, including increasing local production and importing from other countries, “in order not to lean on the terror-supporting Erdogan regime,” he said.

Thirty-eight U.S. states have laws that prohibit states from entering contracts or investing in entities that boycott Israel. However, Israeli legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich, the head of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum who helped draft many of the state anti-boycott bills, said that they were unlikely to be relevant in this case because “state laws only apply to companies that contract with U.S. states, which the Turkish government does not. If the company is boycotting in response to a national legal requirement, it doesn’t fall under state law, but rather federal law.”

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