Al-Aqsa Mosque sanctity must be preserved, Turkish FM says ahead of Israel meetings

Turkish FM Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is set to meet with government officials both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority during his visit this week.

 Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu upon landing in Israel. (photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM/GPO)
Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu upon landing in Israel.
(photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM/GPO)

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday called for preserving the sanctity of the Aksa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount in advance of his anticipated visit there on Wednesday.

“What was happening there hurts the conscience of all Muslims,” he told reporters in Ramallah after meeting with his Palestinian counterpart, Riad al-Malki.

His two-day trip marks the first time in 15 years a high-level Turkish leader has come to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

It is one of a number of steps Israel and Turkey have taken over the past year to repair more than a decade of crises.

The visit comes in the aftermath of a visit Cavusoglu made to the United States last week in which he met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Turkey would like to mend its relations with Israel as part of a larger push to improve its relations with the West.

Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been harsh critics of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, and are supporters of Hamas.

Turkey’s support for the Palestinian issue is not linked to the relations it has with Israel, Cavusoglu told reporters in Ramallah.

“We are continuing to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority regarding our relations with Israel,” he said. “Our support for the Palestinian issue is independent from our relations with Israel.”

Turkey would not change its policy toward the Palestinians, he added.

Cavusoglu called for easing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Turkey supported the two-state solution, he said, adding that unilateral measures would destroy the prospects of peace.

Cavusoglu said he had signed several agreements with Malki to “strengthen the infrastructure of our relations.” The two sides intend to increase their trade volume to $2 billion, he said, prior to meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Temple Mount visit, which is designated as private and is not expected to involve Israeli officials, has both religious and geopolitical overtones. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, and the Aqsa Mosque compound is the third-holiest site in Islam.

Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Magistrate Court dismissed criminal charges against three minors who uttered private Jewish prayers at the Aqsa Mosque compound. The ruling has sparked concern about changes to the status quo that only allows for Muslims to worship at the site.

Underlying the issue of the status quo is the question of who controls the site. Cavusoglu’s visit, even though religious in nature, will likely be viewed as a nod to Palestinian sovereignty.

Turkey maintains that east Jerusalem, where the Temple Mount is located, should be part of the final borders of a future Palestinian state. A visit by a lower-level Turkish official to the Temple Mount earlier this year passed without incident.

Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu's itinerary

Cavusoglu is scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov and visit Yad Vashem on Wednesday.

He will attend both an economic event in Tel Aviv and one with the Turkish Jewish community before departing on Wednesday.

Cavusoglu is expected to discuss the restoration of ambassadors in both the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Israeli Embassy in Ankara and the possibility of an Israeli-Turkish pipeline to export natural gas to Europe.

Expanding Turkey's diplomatic reach

Israel is likely to speak with Turkey about cracking down on Hamas terrorist-related activity within its borders that could pose an explicit danger to Israelis.

In a manner similar to Turkey, Israel is looking to separate its relations with Ankara from its positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to allow for both countries to reforge ties in a way that would have geopolitical benefits for both governments.

The Palestinian issue is not the only complicating factor. Israel’s close ties with Greece could also be a tension point given that Turkey has accused Athens of attempting to block the US sale of F-16 fighter jets to Ankara.

Israel would prefer to focus on areas of common interest, such as the mediating role both countries have played between Russia and Ukraine. It also wants to expand its trade with Turkey, which is $5b.-$6b. annually.

Cavusoglu’s visit follows President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Turkey in March, the first such visit by a high-ranking Israeli official since the one made by former prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.