Analysis: Turkey's Erdogan stakes his claim to Jerusalem

Jerusalem affords Turkey’s leaders a destination, to renew talk of “Al-Aqsa” and the need to play a role in the Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an iftar event in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an iftar event in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Fresh from winning a referendum to consolidate presidential power, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to make issues of Jerusalem and the rights of Muslims in Israel, as well as the Palestinians, in remarks he made at the opening ceremony of the International Forum on Al-Quds Wakfs (Islamic trusts) in Istanbul on Monday.
Erdogan, according to local reports, called Israel racist and discriminatory, while describing the blockade of Gaza as having “no place in humanity.”
He also expressed hope that a new Hamas policy document would lead to reconciliation with Fatah and support the Palestinian “fight for rights and freedom.”
Erdogan also sounded a peaceful tone, claiming that a Palestinian state should be established on the pre-1967 lines, and while Turkey’s “Palestinian brothers” were important, “we will keep making efforts for Al-Quds to turn into a city of peace.”
Erdogan called on Muslims to visit Jerusalem.
“We should be visiting Al-Quds more often,” he said, again referring to Jerusalem by its Islamic name. He claimed that while 400,000 Russians had visited the holy city in 2015, Turks only numbered 26,000.
Why weren’t hundreds of thousands of Muslims coming to the city that many Muslims consider their third holiest? But the Jerusalem issue was only one part of the speech. Erdogan, who is to visit Washington next Tuesday to meet US President Donald Trump, is trying to make Ankara a relevant player in the peace process.
The Turkish president said Muslims visiting Jerusalem would be the “greatest support to our brothers.”
Erdogan has also taken up the issue of the so-called “muezzin bill,” calling on Israel to drop the attempt to legislate a “shameful” law. “Why are you afraid of freedom of faith?” Hurriyet quoted him saying. “If you believe in your faith, then why are you afraid of the sound of our prayers?” Throughout his latest attempt to insert Ankara into the issues in Jerusalem, the Turkish president has balanced his interpretation of the issue as being one that is important to Muslims and one that involves peace and the Palestinians.
Why is Erdogan interested in Israel all of a sudden? The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Erdogan heads, has led Turkey for a decade-and-a-half and during that time has had a rocky relationship with Israel.
In 2009, Erdogan left a stage with Shimon Peres at Davos, Switzerland, accusing Israel of “killing people” in Gaza in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. In 2014, he again claimed in a speech in New York that Israel “massacres” people, referring to the 2010 raid by Israeli forces on the Mavi Marmara, a ship crewed by hundreds of Turkish activists trying to break the Gaza blockade.
The May 2010 incident
led to the deaths of nine Turkish activists from the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), and the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Ankara when Israel initially refused to apologize. Six years later, ambassadors were exchanged once again and the Turkey- Israel rift seemed to be healing.
However, Erdogan has never given up his decade-long quest to play a role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He is passionate about the Palestinian issue and has previously attempted to broker a deal between Israel and Syria.
Nearly 10 years have passed since then, but Turkey wants to revive its role in the region. When the AKP came to power, there was much talk that it was involved in “neo-Ottomanism.” TV shows in Turkey about the Ottoman period have revived religious and nationalist feelings of wanting to lead the region once dominated from Istanbul. But the region frustrates Turkey.
Ankara has found itself out in the cold with US forces working with Kurds in Syria. It was browbeaten in the Astana cease-fire talks and recently signed on to a “de-escalation” agreement, but has seen its ability to support the Syrian rebels in the war-ravaged country circumscribed.
It is saddled with millions of refugees. At the same time, it is drifting away from the EU without a clear destination in the Middle East.
Jerusalem affords Turkey’s leaders a destination – to renew talk of Al-Aksa and the need to play a role in the Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Toward that end, Erdogan knows that President Donald Trump is coming to Israel and heading for Saudi Arabia soon, where he will meet with a group of representatives from Islamic countries.
If Ankara can show it is playing a role on the Palestinian issue – perhaps claiming to bring Hamas onboard a peace agreement – it will position Turkey in the good graces of Trump. Turkey lost one of its key avenues to Trump when US Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn was forced out as national security adviser. Erdogan will be in the US on May 16 and his advance team is in Washington trying to coax the US back into the Turkey camp, away from the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Jerusalem will be on the agenda.