Yet another crisis in the Middle East
U.S. President Donald Trump has defied the warnings of world leaders and officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, initiating proceedings to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the contentious Israeli “capital.” His move signals a clear break with conventional U.S. Middle Eastern policy.
Trump’s unilateral decision has prompted a backlash among Muslims. The Arab League views the U.S. move as an act of aggression against all Arab nations. Palestinian “national and Islamic forces” have declared “three days of rage,” starting on Wednesday and ending on Friday. While Jordan has called an emergency meeting of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) this weekend, Turkey, which currently chairs the OIC, has decided to host an emergency OIC meeting in Istanbul on Dec. 13 to coordinate response on the Jerusalem decision.
Without a formal resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in sight, Trump’s controversial measure signals the end of hopes for a two-state solution, and is likely to precipitate further unrest and clashes in the region.
Contrary to Trump’s promises in his announcement speech, the decision will not contribute to peace in the region. Stoking tensions between the Arab world and Israel will not only undermine the slow-moving efforts of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But it will also damage the fragile cooperation between Israel and Gulf countries vis-à-vis the rise of Iranian influence in the region.
In this context, Trump’s decision risks playing into the hands of Iran, which will welcome the opportunity to stigmatize the close ties between the U.S., Saudi-led Gulf countries and Israel, while presenting itself as the real defender of Palestinian interests.
It is therefore difficult to understand Trump’s motives as anything other than an attempt to divert attention away from a precarious domestic situation. Trump is under massive pressure at home amid the intensification of Special Prosecutor Robert S. Mueller’s investigation regarding Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The probe has even reached the president’s inner circle, with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleading guilty to lying to the FBI over his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Even though reactions should primarily address the Trump administration, Trump’s move will inevitably have a negative impact on the normalization of Turkey-Israel ties, given the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) staunchly pro-Palestine stance.
“Any change to Jerusalem’s status has always been a red line for Muslims,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said, threatening to cut ties with Israel amid talk of Trump’s Jerusalem move.
Indeed, Turkey’s position regarding the status of Jerusalem has been consistent throughout the history of Turkey-Israel relations. Turkey opposed Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem following the 1967 war and downgraded diplomatic relations to the second secretary level after the Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel” in 1980, which declared Jerusalem as the “complete and united” capital of Israel.
Many years later, Turkey and Israel signed a reconciliation agreement and exchanged ambassadors in 2016, ending a six-year rift following the Mavi Marmara incident, when eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American were killed after Israeli forces stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla. Since then, relations have continued at a low level, surviving on an issue-by-issue basis. Diplomatic efforts to rebuild mutual trust may now go to waste due to renewed tensions.
But Turkish policymakers should also act rationally and consider carefully the pros and cons of cutting diplomatic ties with Israel. We need to keep dialogue channels open more than ever, now that we’re sailing through bad weather. Only then will Turkey be able to maintain its role as a mediator in the Israel-Palestine peace process. One has to bear in mind the reconciliation agreement that allowed Turkey to send approximately 24,000 tons of humanitarian aid to Gaza to improve Palestinians’ living conditions.
Trump’s reckless decision has opened Pandora’s Box in the Middle East. Turkey’s fierce reaction, on the other hand, shows that the Palestinian issue remains the soft underbelly of Turkey-Israeli relations.