Trump’s Jerusalem Decision: Erdogan Leads the Muslim Reaction
December 6, 2017
On December 6, President Donald Trump confirmed in a formal statement at the White House his long-anticipated decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, thus bringing to end the 50-year policy maintained by successive administrations to balance strong American support for Israel with recognition of Arab and Islamic sensitivities on the city. Characterizing the move as “long overdue,” Trump said that it gave Israel “a right like any other sovereign nation to determine its own capital,” but the U.S. would “not take a position on Jerusalem’s final status issues.” Although Trump claimed that his action was part of “a new approach to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians” which would help facilitate a peace deal, this is likely to be ignored by most Arabs and Muslims and the stage seems set for renewed tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic world.
The day before Trump’s announcement, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had reacted to reports of the imminent move relating to the third most important Islamic city, which he identified as “Muslims’ red line.” Erdogan continued, “Has the U.S. solved all problems that it is dealing with? Making such a decision in support of Israel, while the Palestinian people’s wounds continue to bleed and there is no end to violations of rights, oppression, and suppression, would not only be a violation of international law but also deal a heavy blow to humanity’s conscience. As the current president of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), we will follow this issue to the end. We will convene an OIC summit in Istanbul and mobilize the entire Islamic world because this is not an ordinary issue. We will continue our struggle with determination until the end.” After warning Israel that Turkey could again cut diplomatic relations, which had been restored in 2013 after a three-year break as a result of former president Barack Obama’s personal diplomatic efforts, Erdogan also warned the U.S. “against taking such a step which would only exacerbate the problems in the region.” He added, “This cannot happen, you cannot take this step.”
In an effort to galvanize a strong response by the Islamic world, Erdogan phoned the leaders of Malaysia, Tunisia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Indonesia. He also called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah, the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy places, whom he had met in Amman in August after Israel restricted access to the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Erdogan followed up with a meeting with Abdullah in Ankara hours before Trump’s announcement. After Abdullah revealed during their joint press conference that he had re-emphasized to Trump his concerns in a phone call the previous day, Erdogan noted the Jordanian Kingdom’s critical role and cautioned that “any false step relating to the status of Jerusalem will cause indignation in the entire Islamic world while destroying peace efforts and triggering new clashes.” Emphasizing the importance of the city for all Muslims, he continued, “Any step by anybody who disregards this historic reality will produce sorrow and disaster. The welfare, peace, and security of our region are too important to be sacrificed to domestic calculations. Nobody has the right to play with billions of people's fate for the sake of personal ambitions. Such a step will only play into the hands of terrorist groups.”
Erdogan then confirmed that there would be a meeting in Istanbul of the OIC foreign ministers on December 12 followed by an OIC summit the next day. In a formal statement issued in the name of the OIC immediately after his meeting with Abdullah, he emphasized “the defense of the sanctity of Jerusalem and the preservation of its historic status,” while calling on the U.S. yet again “to withdraw from this step that will trigger chaos in the region.”
Although Turkey has been a member of the OIC since it was established in September 1969 after a Jewish religious extremist had set fire to the Al Aqsa mosque, it has been making a sustained effort under the leadership of Erdogan and the ruling AKP during the past 15 years to make greater use of the multilateral forum the OIC provides to demonstrate solidarity with Muslims throughout the world, parallel to its own unilateral diplomatic initiatives. While it is unclear how much of an effect Erdogan’s strong response to his move will have on Trump, what is clear is that the Jerusalem issue will inevitably exacerbate the malaise in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, which was already under considerable strain because of serious disagreements on a number of issues.
Bulent Aliriza is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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