Erdogan, Jerusalem, and the End of the Honeymoon

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statements at the International Forum on al-Quds Waqf (held in Istanbul) received international media coverage when he attacked Israeli policy in Jerusalem, compared the situation in the West Bank with Apartheid South Africa, and called for mass pilgrimage to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites which stands on the same location as the Temple Mount.

“As a Muslim community,” Erdogan said, “we need to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque often, each day that Jerusalem is under occupation is an insult to us.”

No, this wasn’t some ill-advised attempted at encouraging Turkish tourism to the Holy Land. And no, this wasn’t a particularly unique moment for Erdogan – after all, critiquing Israel has been his bread and butter for many years now. But observers of Israel-Turkey relations would tell you that this outburst is the first we have seen in some time. Here are some initial thoughts:

1. The post-reconciliation honeymoon period is over.

It is nearly a year since Israel and Turkey patched up their rocky relationship. Israel agreed to pay compensation to the families of those who died on the MV Mavi Marmara in May 2010, and Turkey dropped its demands that Israel lift the Gaza blockade. Both in the months leading up to reconciliation, and the ten months since, Turkish and Israeli officials have done everything in their capacity to improve relations, focusing on potential areas of cooperation and refraining from being overtly critical of one another’s policies.

Erdogan’s comments are an abrupt break from this mini-honeymoon. Whether or not one agrees with his assessment of Israeli policy regarding East Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, or the “muezzin bill” – all of which are subject to open dispute in Israeli politics and society – what is indisputable is that such public statements only made the situation worse and likely undermined much of the trust that was slowly being rebuilt between Israeli and Turkish officials.

2. Turkey hasn’t dropped its interest in the Palestinian cause.

There is reason to believe that Erdogan’s outburst may be the beginning of a period of more aggressive statements towards the Jewish State. Turkey is one of the most visible supporters of Hamas. Hamas officials live in Turkey, reportedly engaged in operational and training activities. In March 2017, Israel arrested the head of TİKA (Turkey’s state humanitarian organizations) in Gaza, after it was discovered that he was a Hamas operative, delivering information back and forth from Turkey and misdirecting aid and funds to the terror organization.

Newly elected political leader Ismail Haniyeh has not shied away from Erdogan’s support, and even named one of his grandchildren after Turkey’s president in 2010. Considered by many a relative moderate, Haniyeh isn’t walking into an easy situation: Hamas’s military wing is now under the authority of hardliner Yahya Sinwar, and the situation in the Gaza Strip feels ripe once again for conflict. To make matters more complicated, Fatah is having a good month. Not only was PA President Mahmoud Abbas invited to the White House, but Marwan Barghouti’s hunger-strike has only strengthened Fatah’s position as the leading voice of the Palestinian people.

With the Trump administration visiting the region at the end of May and expressing (at least outwardly) an interest in facilitating negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Haniyeh and Hamas need to find a way to stay relevant. Erdogan’s comments, just a day before meeting PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Istanbul, were a way of both reminding the Muslim world of Turkey’s leadership role (at least rhetorically) in the Palestinian cause, as well as a message to the United States and other regional actors that Hamas and its supporters cannot be ignored.

3. What makes this situation unique?

At this point, Israeli and Turkish officials should be old pros at cleaning up Erdogan’s messes. Instead, every incident receives its own uniquely tailored response. This week’s headline is no different.

In response to Erdogan’s comments, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues the following statement:

This isn’t a mere response, but a retort, and a clear reference to developments in Turkey since the attempted coup last July (if not before that). It is important to add here that, unlike the United States which congratulated Erdogan on the outcome of April’s referendum, Israel remained silent.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely tweeted that Erdogan’s slanderous comments do not change the reality that “Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish People, and Israel” and that under Israeli sovereignty the Temple Mount would remain open to all faiths.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon tweeted about Erdogan’s aspirations to Islamize the European continent. “The only surprise is that some are waking up to these facts now,” Ya’alon added:

Even Jerusalem mayor (and aspiring political figure) Nir Barkat joined in:

President Reuven Rivlin also called out Erdogan, saying “I must tell these people, for the last 150 years there has been a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. Even under the Ottoman Empire there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem.”

Only a day later (May 9, 2017) did Israeli Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem call Turkish Ambassador Kemal Okem to discuss the incident.

Israel and Turkey did an impressive job of managing their relationship over the last year. There is still mutual interest in developing a natural gas pipeline, and cooperating in other economic and security aspects, so in all likelihood leadership in Jerusalem and Ankara will quickly get back to business. Still, diplomatic officials must continue stressing that in the context of this bilateral relationship more can be accomplished with private conversation than public attacks and counterattacks.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey