The political turmoil and bloodshed caused by President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem may result in the final and definitive breakup of the already loveless relationship between Turkey and Israel. The situation also appears set to deepen the crisis in Turkish-American ties, already beset by a host of problems that remain unsolved.
Turkey asked Israel’s ambassador in Ankara and consul general in Istanbul to leave following this week’s mass killing of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli soldiers. It also recalled its ambassador in Washington for consultations over the Jerusalem crisis.
Israel reciprocated, asking Turkey’s ambassador in Tel Aviv and consul general in Jerusalem, whose job was essentially to look after Palestinian affairs, to leave.
The humiliating manner in which Israel’s envoy Eitan Naeh was dispatched from Turkey, including a body search by airport security under the gaze of the Turkish media brought in to mark the occasion, elicited a reciprocal response from Israel.
The United States had no ambassador to recall, its former envoy John Bass having left for his new appointment in Kabul in September 2017 amid vitriolic attacks from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan alleged that Bass had single-handedly undermined Turkish-American ties with his anti-Turkish recommendations to the US administration during his tenure in Ankara.
Erdogan also appears determined once again to spearhead the international campaign against Israel. Ankara called another emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for May 18, as it did last year after Trump declared his intention to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Turkish officials believe the OIC summit in Istanbul in December 2017 enabled the overwhelming support for the UN General Assembly resolution that rejected the move.
Despite the threat by Washington’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who said the Americans would be keeping tabs on how countries voted, the resolution passed with 128 votes for and 9 against, with 21 countries absent and 35 abstaining.
The rumor on Ankara’s diplomatic grapevine is that Washington is already working behind the scenes to prevent a replay of last year’s defeat at the UN should efforts to bring the latest events to the General Assembly bear fruit.
Talking in London, where he was on an official visit, Erdogan not only blamed what he referred to as “the terrorist state of Israel” for killing unarmed Palestinians, but also hit at the United States for returning the region to a dark age: “America has chosen to be part of the problem and not the solution so they have lost their role as international mediator. We cannot stop feeling like being in the dark days of pre-World War II,” he said during an address at Chatham House.
In a separate speech to Turkish students studying in the UK, Erdogan cursed the United States and Israel for causing the “humanitarian drama” in Gaza and accused Israel of perpetrating genocide against the Palestinians. He did not waste the opportunity to blast the United States for its support of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers terrorist organizations. “Unfortunately, America has entered into a merciless cooperation with Israel here the way it did with the PYD and YPG,” Erdogan said.
Talks between Ankara and Washington regarding the YPG issue are said to be ongoing, but little headway has been reported so far.
Erdogan and Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu also did not hold back from exchanging bitter terrorism barbs over Twitter.
“Erdogan is among Hamas’s biggest supporters and there is no doubt that he well understands terrorism and slaughter. I suggest that he not preach morality to us,” Netanyahu tweeted.
“Netanyahu is the PM of an apartheid state that has occupied a defenseless people’s lands for 60+ years in violation of UN resolutions. He has the blood of Palestinians on his hands and can’t cover up crimes by attacking Turkey. Want a lesson in humanity? Read the Ten Commandments,” Erdogan wrote in his riposte.
Netanyahu’s wayward son Yair jumped into the fray, posting an obscenity on Instagram using the crescent of the Turkish flag in place of the letter C.
Erdogan’s criticism of the United States and anger with Israel are shared across the political spectrum in Turkey. Even Taha Akyol, the veteran Hurriyet columnist who generally supports diplomacy over Erdogan’s often inflammatory rhetoric in sensitive foreign policy matters, had harsh words this time: “The prime responsibility for Israeli oppression today rests with US President Donald Trump,” Akyol wrote, adding, “The moral responsibility for the murdered Palestinians belongs to Trump.”
Serdar Turgut, Haberturk’s Washington representative, argued that Washington has been taken over by Israel-supporting neocons driven by Christian evangelists who hate Erdogan. According to Turgut, these groups were spreading the notion that they and Israel are good and Turkey is bad.
That Turkey is holding an American pastor in prison on terrorism charges has already fueled hatred of Erdogan among Washington’s conservative and evangelical circles. Andrew Brunson is being tried for allegedly supporting the organization of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled cleric accused of masterminding the failed coup against Erdogan in July 2016. He is also accused of supporting separatist Kurdish terrorism. Some congressmen have moved to impose sanctions against Ankara for Brunson’s incarceration. Meanwhile, Washington’s refusal to extradite Gulen, a resident of Pennsylvania, is another source of tension.
Accusing Arab countries of not doing enough for the Palestinian cause, Erdogan declared three days of mourning for the Palestinians killed by Israel and is set to address giant crowds in Istanbul May 18 and in the eastern city of Diyarbakir May 20 to condemn Israel.
That the Palestinians cause is supported by all parties in Turkey on the right and the left has not prevented the opposition from claiming that Erdogan is using it to promote his own political interests in the lead-up to the June 24 elections. Many expect the anti-Israel rallies this weekend organized by the ruling Justice and Development Party to turn into political rallies for Erdogan.
Despite its deep animosity toward Turkey, Israel is still indicating that it does not want to sever ties with Ankara.
“The decision reached by the Foreign Ministry after much deliberation — and of course Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was part of it — is that we do not intend to cut ties with Turkey,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said in remarks to the Israeli press.
There is, however, a public clamor in Turkey among Erdogan’s support base to sever these ties. Even moderate voices, such as that of retired Ambassador Oguz Demiralp, believe Israel’s actions should not go unchallenged this time, and say those responsible for killing unarmed Palestinians should be tried for war crimes.
“Maybe [Trump and Netanyahu] should also be reminded that under international law, Palestine, including East Jerusalem, is a country under occupation and therefore has the right, again under international law, to resort to armed resistance if the situation requires it,” Demiralp wrote in his column for the news portal T24.
Israel may not want to break off relations with Turkey for pragmatic reasons, but Turkey is not guaranteed to continue with them while the crimes it says Israel is committing against Palestinians with impunity continue.
How Ankara and Washington manage this latest crisis in their ties is not clear. Many expect they will muddle through, but relations appear likely to get worse before they get better.