The delicate dynamics of Turkish-Israeli tension

The delicate dynamics of Turkish-Israeli tension

The executive committee of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is scheduled to have an emergency meeting in Istanbul on Aug. 1 at the foreign ministers level. They are due to discuss the recent al-Aksa Mosque tension with Israel, following a call by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan.

The tension started on July 14 when Israeli police killed three Palestinians in the al-Aksa Mosque compound, after the gunmen killed two Israeli policemen at the gate of the Harem al-Sharif (Temple Mount) compound and escaped inside.

Immediately closing the entire compound to Muslim worship, the Israeli government put up metal detectors and raised metal barricades. It said the move was for the protection of all, but it also brought restrictions on Islamic prayers at the al-Aksa mosque, which was the first place where all Muslims turned their faces while praying during the times of the Prophet Muhammad, before the Qaba in Mecca.

Ankara reacted strongly against these moves. Following a statement from the Foreign Ministry, President Erdoğan slammed the Israeli government and said the measures aimed not only at the worshipping rights of Muslims but also at the presence of the Palestinians in Jerusalem. Erdoğan called Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on July 20 (as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) to say that Turkey “could not accept” what was happening.

The same night, an ultra-nationalist/Islamist group called the Alperen Ocakları turned a protest in front of the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul into a physical attack, threatening to block the worshiping of Turkish Jews in retaliation. This put the Turkish government on alert, and the next day Ankara condemned the attack on the synagogue, underlining the right to worship for all and once again condemning the Israeli government over the incidents that erupted because of the restricted Friday prayers at al-Aksa. Erdoğan also raised the issue during his meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on July 23 during his tour of Gulf countries aimed at finding a solution to the ongoing Qatar crisis.

Tension over the al-Aksa situation was not only between Turkey and Israel. For example, an Israeli guard at the gate of the Israeli embassy in Amman shot dead two Jordanians after one of them tried to attack the guard with a screwdriver. On the same day, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered for the metal detectors around the Harem al-Sharif to be lifted, while keeping the controversial security cameras.

On July 25, Erdoğan said he considered the lifting of the metal detectors a “positive step” but stressed that it was “not enough.” He accused the Israeli government of trying to “erase the Muslim presence in Jerusalem.” Adding that the believers of all three monotheistic religions “lived together in peace during Ottoman times for 400 years,” Erdoğan said Jerusalem would never be recognized as the capital of Israel and Turkey was in favor of the 1967 arrangement in which East Jerusalem is accepted as the capital of Palestine and Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel.

The same day, Erdoğan had a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron aimed at helping to contain the crisis. But when an Israeli statement on July 26 said “the Ottoman days were over” and Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, the Turkish Foreign Ministry strongly criticized it and accused the Israeli government of “exceeding its limits.”

Referring to the old saying that “those in glass houses should not throw stones,” the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office also mentioned Turkey’s Kurdish and the Cypriot problems for the first time. Up to now Israeli governments have refrained from referring to these two issues in official statements. 

The references are being read in Ankara as a move by Netanyahu, as the head of a fragile coalition, to outmaneuver his political rivals in Israel, particularly those demanding a harsher stance against Turkey.

Ankara thinks Netanyahu also wants to manipulate the U.S. administration, following President Donald Trump’s remarks on the possibility of recognizing Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel, as the Hürriyet Daily News’ Serkan Demirtaş reported in his July 29 column.

President Erdoğan on July 28 made his call on the OIC to discuss the issue in Istanbul on Aug. 1. This is a step aiming to make other Muslim-majority countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, take a stance regarding the al-Aqsa issue, thus preventing the issue from being seen as only Turkey-Israel tension and taking pressure off his own shoulders in domestic politics. 

The social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have also condemned the Israeli government’s restrictions on worship for Muslims and the rights of Palestinians, but Erdoğan’s domestic problems on this issue do not emanate from these two sources. Rather, it is the parties and groups in the nationalist and Islamic spectrum of politics that are putting pressure on Erdoğan to take stronger action against Israel, just like Netanyahu’s rivals do. 

For example, the Saadet Party, the successor of Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamic-conservative tradition which also gave birth to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), has organized a demonstration in Istanbul calling on for stronger measures against Israel. There is also the Alperen Ocakları group, which has an affiliation with the Greater Unity Party (BBP) and which (unlike the Saadet Party) supported Erdoğan in the April 16 referendum on consolidating all executive powers in presidential hands. 

Erdoğan, who aims to get re-elected in 2019 with at least 50 percent plus one vote, has to compete and convince parties on the right as he tries to heal wounds in the state apparatus caused by the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher who is believed to have masterminded the foiled July 15, 2016 military coup attempt.

On the other hand, Turkey and Israel are both trying to maintain a reconciliation process that has emphasized giant energy projects, such as the carrying of Israeli gas to European Union markets with or without Cypriot gas.

As part of reconciliation moves, a visit of Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak –the son-in-law of President Erdoğan - to Israel has already been announced as the first official contact in years, though no date has been fixed yet.

Both the Israeli and the Turkish governments say they will maintain their positions whatever the cost, but we should wait and see the results of the OIC meeting in Istanbul.