Turkish Alarm Bells Over Jerusalem William Mehlman


“Democracy is like a train,” Turkey’s idiosyncratic president cum dictator Recep Tyipp Erdogan is noted for having said, “you get off once you have reached your destination.” Precisely how Mr.  Erdogan defines that destination remains something of a mystery.

For certain it does not include the reconstruction of the intimate decades-long security relationship Turkey shared with Israel prior to the May 2010 Israeli interdiction of a Marvi Marmara-led flotilla out of Istanbul intent on challenging the Jewish state’s embargo on the shipment of military and other strategic materiel to a belligerent Hamas-ruled Gaza.  “That relationship is finished, history,” Yesh Atid party chairman MK Yair Lapid asserted in a recent Tel Aviv interview.  “It isn’t going to be restored.” Testimony to this fact could not have been more provocatively offered than Erdogan’s incendiary supporting role in the recent Palestinian riots sparked by the emplacement and subsequent humiliating removal of metal detectors at the main Muslim entrance to the Temple Mount following the murder there of two Israeli policemen by Israeli Arabs.  “Israeli soldiers were defiling the soil of the al-Aqsa Mosque and damaging its Islamic character with their combat boots,” he declared in his capacity as chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, “using simple issues as an excuse for the spilling of blood there.  The reason they are doing that so easily is because we are not doing enough to underscore our claim to Jerusalem.”

Erdogan’s further charge that Israel was using “excessive force” in dealing with the rioters touched off an Ankara-Jerusalem shouting match, with Prime Minister Netanyahu calling Erdogan a “hypocrite” and publicly wondering what the Turkish president might have to say about his nation’s 33-year occupation of northern Cyprus, suppression of Turkey’s 15 million ethnic Kurds and bitter opposition to the Kurdish people’s century-long quest for an independent state in the Middle East.

Two years after a “Reconciliation Agreement” highlighted by a self-deprecating Obama-pressured Netanyahu “apology” to the Turkish autocrat and the payment of $20 million in compensation to the families of the nine club and knife-wielding thugs who died trying to block a takeover of the rogue Marvi Marmara in IsraelI territorial waters, Israeli-Turkish relations have never returned to normal.  Teetering on the edge of the trash basket is the once robust vision of a multi-billion dollar deal for both countries pivoted on the creation of an “EastMed” natural gas pipeline running from the wells at Israel’s coastal waters through Turkey to Europe’s Mediterranean markets.  “Turkey will not be considered a reliable partner by Israel,” analyst George Tzogopoulos told Mosaic Magazine “as long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan dominates the political sphere.”

“The time has come to stop ingratiating ourselves with the Turks, who always come back and kick us harder,” Lapid submits.  “We need to do all the things we didn’t when we had good relations with Turkey.” High on the list of things to which Israel will no longer be turning a blind eye is Ankara’s continued support of the recruitment of Palestinian students for terrorist activities, military training and economic aid to a Hamas regime in Gaza pledged to its annihilation.  The 2015 Reconciliation Agreement was inter alia predicated on the termination of this alliance.  It remains alive and well as Israeli legal NGO Shurat HaDin predicted in pleading with Netanyahu not to sign.  Israel was tossed a bone with the forced exit from Ankara of Salam al-Aroun, Hamas’ coordinator of operations, but his successors have lost no time picking up the ball.  One of them, Muhammed Murtara, director of a Turkish “humanitarian aid organization” based in Gaza was arrested by the Shin Bet for masterminding the transfer of millions of dollars donated by Ankara for the enhancement of Hamas’ ”tunnel building enterprise in the Gaza Strip,” as reported by Yoav Zitun of YNetNews.

Meanwhile, on a trajectory of stunning self-interest seemingly independent of the toxic political atmosphere, Mr.  Erdogan has launched a reinforced effort to continue doing business with the Jewish state he abhors.  There is no substitute on the horizon for the revenues EastMed would pump into his faltering economy and he doesn’t want to stop there.  Less than a month prior to declaring that “each day Jerusalem is under occupation is an insult to us,” a delegation of members of the Turkish Export Assembly under its chairman Mehmet Buyukeski was sitting in Tel Aviv with representatives of Israel’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce mapping a course for increasing Israeli-Turkish trade to $10 billion from its current $4 billion over the next five years.  Buoyed by first quarter 2017 increases of 20 percent in Turkish exports to Israel and 45 percent in Israeli exports to Turkey, Mr. Buyukeski was looking beyond goods exchanges to Israeli-Turkish joint ventures in third party countries.  “We have a huge potential together,” he said, “internationally optimized by means of business.”

Is Mr.  Buyukeski’s boss in Ankara cool with all this? Or does the boss think he can have it both ways? One need look no further than Jerusalem to see real-time evidence of Mr.  Erdogan’s bold attempt to turn that trick.  “Alarm bells should be ringing about the nefarious, intensifying involvement of Erdogan’s Turkey in Jerusalem’s political and social affairs,” warns David M. Weinberg, Director of Public Affairs at Bar Ilniversity’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.  Weinberg makes pointed reference to a “rare, breathtaking and shocking description of political trends in east Jerusalem” as set forth in the new Hebrew intellectual journal Hashiloach by David Koren and Ben Avrahami, advisors on eastern Jerusalem affairs for the Jerusalem Municipality.  He urges particular attention to the mounting Jerusalem involvement of Erdogan’s Turkey into the vacuum created by the “erosion in the status of the veteran east Jerusalem mukhtars and the [waning] influence of the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah political infrastructures and leaders.” Turkey, being the chief patron of both, Koren and Avrahami assert, currently enjoys “unprecedented popularity among the Arab residents of east Jerusalem.”

The evidence is inescapable.  Turkish national flags are flying all over the Old City.  Turkish food, Turkish sweets, Turkish culture have become the flavors of the day.  The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) has invested millions in 63 projects in eastern Jerusalem, most notably the Ottoman Muslim archives on the Temple Mount, the installation of a large water tanker at the site for worshipers, the restoration of Shashelet Street in the Old City’s Muslim quarter and the renovation of the Muslim cemetery at the foot of the Mount.  TIKA, not coincidentally, also finances the buses that transport the young male and female “morabitun” and “morabitat” Islamic “study groups” to the Temple Mount, where they have become notorious for their harassment of Jewish visitors to the site.  Istanbul-based “Our Heritage Foundation,” another activist group, has poured $40 million dollars, primarily into the Old City, over a recent period.

It’s rather ironical, as Professor Eyal Zisser, Vice Rector of Tel Aviv University and holder of the Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair in the Contemporary History of the Middle East, observes in Israel Hayom, that “the flames on and around the Temple Mount,” flames meant to panic Israel into abandoning its security measures, “were fueled by external forces, neither Palestinian nor Arab.” Those “external forces” were unquestionably Turkish, with an important assist from Iran.  Israel’s stand-down on the metal detectors and the cameras gave them a partial victory.

But the biggest loser in this contest was Jordan.  Its status since 1967 as Guardian of the Holy Places and Protector of the Arabs of Jerusalem was damaged, possibly beyond repair.  In other words, as Michael Rubin, writing in Mosaic views it, Erdogan seeking “a collective Islamic administration under Turkey’s tutelage [is implying] that Jordan’s control has run its course.  This has as much to do with Erdogan seeking to restore Turkey’s neo-Ottoman claims over Jerusalem a century after the Ottoman Empire lost the city as it does with sincere concern about the Temple Mount itself.” If the West truly wishes “to see calm restored to Jerusalem,” he further submits, “it is essential that they treat the cause and not simply the symptoms.  The problem at the Temple Mount has nothing to do with metal detectors and little to do with Israel.  Rather it is a struggle for custodianship in the Islamic world.”

Rubin believes it’s “essential that Jordan wins.” We would suggest that train has left the station.  The only “custodianship” of Jerusalem and its Holy Places that ever had any moral or historical validity is Israel’s, the nation that imprinted holiness upon its being 3,000 years ago.  It is time for Israel to reassert its rightful authority over the preservation of that legacy.


William Mehlman represents AFSI in Israel.

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