Jerusalem Casts a Shadow over U.S.-Turkish Relations
May 18, 2018
The May 14 transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in accordance with President Donald Trump’s controversial decision five months earlier which coincided with the commemoration by Palestinians of their national grief stemming from the creation of Israel as well as with the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, led to mass demonstrations by Palestinians on the Gaza boundary fence and the death of over 60 Palestinians. At the same time, it heightened tensions between Turkey and the United States, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been at the forefront of opposition to Trump’s December 6 declaration, began to galvanize and direct the response from the Islamic world and the international community not only against Israel but also the United States.
Erdogan had reiterated his objections to Trump’s move on CNN International on May 8, characterizing it as a “huge mistake” which the United States needed to reverse as it had “nothing to gain” from it. On May 13, Erdogan taunted the United States on being able to obtain the support at the United Nations of “only seven or eight small countries you could not find on the map” for its move against the 128 countries which opposed it despite “innumerable phone calls and financial offers.” He warned that “by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the U.S. has taken the risk of losing its allies.” Erdogan added “The U.S. has preferred to maintain its stance, which disregards the most basic principles of international law, the will of the international community and historical and social realities, by moving its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Al-Quds. The U.S. violated all related UN resolutions and…impaired its credibility before the international community and lost its role as a broker in the settlement of this dispute.”
On the day of the transfer, Erdogan commented from London: “We find the U.S. decision to relocate its embassy very unfortunate. We once again reject this decision which disregards international law and violates UN resolutions. The U.S. lost its role as mediator in the Middle East peace process with its latest step by which it opted to be a part of the problem rather than the solution…There are two people responsible [for the Palestinian deaths] Mr.Trump and Netanyahu.” In another speech on the same day, Erdogan said, “I condemn this human tragedy, this genocide and those who remain silent to it.” Pointedly referring to U.S.-Turkey tensions over northern Syria Erdogan compared U.S. support for Israel to “its cooperation with the PYD/YPG.”
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag escalated Turkey’s criticism of the United States, with remarks reportedly cleared from London by Erdogan. Characterizing the U.S. move as “a joint attack on all Muslims,” Bozdag called the United States a “culprit, together with Israel” and continued “It is the attitude and the steps that the U.S. has taken that caused this massacre…There is Palestinian blood on the U.S.’s hands. We strongly condemn the U.S. administration and the terrorist Israeli state for the injustice, tyranny, and massacre they have committed.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry followed up by formally condemning the action as “legally null and void" and warned that the United States would be “fully responsible for the repercussions.” It also referred pointedly to the resolutions adopted with strong Turkish guidance at the Extraordinary Summit in Istanbul of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on December 13, 2017 and the United Nations General Assembly on December 21, 2017 as evidence that “this illegitimate step taken by the U.S.” was “rejected by the international community.”
Turkey then proceeded to immediately recall its ambassadors from the United States as well as Israel for consultations. It also summoned to the foreign ministry Israel’s ambassador, who had arrived in Ankara in 2016 as part of the U.S.-sponsored rapprochement after the long diplomatic break caused by the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, to inform him that it “would be appropriate for him to go back to his country for some time.” The Israeli envoy was then subjected to an extremely unusual body search at Istanbul Airport before boarding his plane back to Tel Aviv.
As Turkey began three days of official mourning on May 14, which Erdogan said showed that the Turkish people “stood in solidarity with our Palestinian brothers,” Turkish demonstrators targeted Israeli and U.S. embassies in Ankara. The following day, the Turkish Grand National Assembly held a special session and adopted a joint declaration in the name of the ruling Justice and Development Party as well as its electoral ally, the Nationalist Action Party, and the main opposition Republican People's Party condemning “the U.S. and Israel for their disregard for the UN decision and defiance of the universal values and will of the international community.”
At the same time, Erdogan initiated a sustained diplomatic effort on Jerusalem using the wider international platform provided by his presence in London. In addition to his meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom, this included a series of phone conversations with world leaders such as President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and Pope Francis. In addition to giving full support for the emergency United Nations Security Council meeting called by Kuwait, just as in December 2017, Erdogan called for another emergency meeting of the OIC in Istanbul on May 18, parallel to a ‘Stance Against Injustice’ public meeting on the same day at Yenikapi Square in Istanbul, similar to the massive gathering organized there in the aftermath of the failed July 2016 coup.
At the OIC meeting Erdogan took aim at the United States by saying “Despite all warnings the U.S. surrendered to circles who feed off tension and confrontation. Instead of taking the will of the OIC and the UN into consideration, it preferred to follow Netanyahu and some radical evangelists…It has rewarded Israel which has gone beyond apartheid regimes with its occupation policies and punished the Palestinian people who want peace. With its Jerusalem decision, the U.S. set the stage for Israel’s massacres and has the blood of innocent Palestinians on its hands.” Erdogan thus made it even more clear that he intends to escalate and broaden his campaign against the United States along with Israel as he perceives electoral advantages in addition to an enhanced international profile in this issue prior to simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24.
For its part, the United States has so far chosen not to respond directly to Turkish criticisms unlike Israel which has retaliated by asking the Turkish Consul in Jerusalem to leave as its leaders directed harsh rhetoric at Erdogan. However, it seems likely that this issue will exacerbate the current malaise in U.S.-Turkish relations by adding another dimension to the list of intractable problems on the agenda. These include the continuing U.S. military support to the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, the failure to extradite U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, the conviction of Halkbank official Hakan Atilla in the Iranian sanctions evasion trial, Turkey’s commitment to purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system and the continued detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced on May 17 that he plans to be in Washington on June 4 to meet with his counterpart Mike Pompeo to “discuss the approval of the roadmap for Manbij for which there is a pre-agreement” along with “the retreat of the YPG.” However, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert’s statement that “the talks about Manbij are ongoing, and nothing has been concluded” is a sign that the current mood in Washington may not be conducive to the kind of progress Cavusoglu is seeking. In fact, Cavusoglu’s reiteration of Erdogan’s declaration to once again take the Jerusalem issue to the United Nations General Assembly, where he said, “we should be able to get a decision,” makes it more likely that his upcoming meeting would take place against a backdrop of rising mutual anger not only in Ankara but also in Washington, particularly in the U.S. Congress which has traditionally been even stronger in its support for Israel than in the administration.
Bulent Aliriza is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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