Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, June 13, 2017. .
(photo credit: KAYHAN OZER/PRESIDENTIAL PALACE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Sunday for a multi-day visit to the Gulf that will also take him to Kuwait and Qatar. He announced that he sought to help find a way out of the crisis that began in June when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other states sought to isolate Qatar.
However, there is another dimension to the trip that should concern Jerusalem, Erdogan wants to talk about the region, and he has been outspoken on the issue of Jerusalem and the current violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
In May, Erdogan spoke about the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims around the world and urged more Turks and others to visit the city and show support for “our Palestinian brothers.” On July 22, his office issued a statement condemning Israel. “It is unacceptable that Israel shut down Haram al-Sharif for three days and imposed new restrictions, including metal detectors, on Muslims’ entry to the area.”
He described the July 14 terror attack as “an incident, which is not approved and is regretted by us that took place on July 14 in East Quds which Israel has been occupying since 1967.” The terror attack took place on the Temple Mount.
The Turkish president wrote in his capacity as president of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. He claimed Israel “disregarded all warnings” and that it was acting with disproportionate force “against our brothers and sisters who gathered for Friday prayers.”
The statement claimed that the area around al-Aksa is “a temple that belongs to Islam,” and that the OIC would continue to support Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Wakf and Jordan in efforts to resolve the crises.
There is very little to indicate any understanding of Israel’s security interests in the statement. Even the three terrorists are not described as perpetrators but “Palestinians who lost their lives during this event.” No mention is made of the two Israeli police officers.
Turkey, a country that has suffered terrorism in recent years, is aware of the threat of terror, but the statement did not acknowledge that the attack was terrorist in nature.
This is important language.
It is not the first time the Turkish president has had deep criticism for Israel. Erdogan has expressed anger at Israel for its actions over the last ten years, especially after Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the Mavi Marmara raid in 2010. Israel and Turkey only reestablished diplomatic relations in 2016 after five years of crises.
On Thursday July 20, President Reuven Rivlin spoke to Erdogan on the phone and asked him to condemn the terror attack. The Temple Mount is “holy for all,” Rivlin said according to reports. The call came at Erdogan’s request, president to president. This was at a time when other reports noted that Saudi Arabia and Jordan both were involved in efforts related to easing tensions in Jerusalem.
The former did so through US channels.
Israel has been imagining a new honeymoon with Saudi Arabia in recent years. The Qatar crises illustrated how some of Israel’s concerns about Hamas and Hezbollah were closely shared by the Gulf as they accused Qatar of working with Hamas and Iran.
Al Arabiya in Saudi Arabia notes that “the anti-terror quarter of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt decided to impose a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar last month for supporting terrorism and extremist groups in the region.” It accused Ankara of refusing to “back down from establishing a military base in Qatar or withdraw troops it has sent to Doha.” However Erdogan’s visit could break the ice on this issue. It will be important to see how the kingdom reports the trip. So far the press is focused on Qatar, and not on violence in the West Bank.
But nothing in the Middle East is ever as clear and simple as it appears. Turkey is a key supporter of Qatar, and both are close to Hamas. Yet, in recent years Turkey has aspirations to play a role in defending al-Aksa, and holding up Palestinian rights as its own cause.
The recent crisis could lead to another round of Erdogan attempts to make the Jerusalem issue his own and his trip to the Gulf may touch on the religious aspect of this.
Any hopes in Jerusalem that Turkey might be playing a role in working with Israel and the Palestinians were put on ice between Thursday’s phone call and Saturday’s statement.
Now Israel can only hope that the warming relations with the Gulf continue and the Jerusalem issue does not inflame tensions.