Turkey has been at the forefront of opposition to President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and Ankara has hailed the results of the December 21 vote on a United Nations General Assembly resolution it proposed with Yemen declaring it illegal and demanding its rescission. Acting as a spokesperson, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boastfully stated, “We are reminding them one more time: The world is bigger than five. It is 196 times bigger,” in reference to the five permanent members on the UN Security Council. Turkey bolstered its reaction at the UN with a decision to open an embassy to Palestine in East Jerusalem. Erdoğan repeated his accusations against the United States for breaching a “red line” and conducting an “unforgivable act” and thus becoming a “partner in bloodshed” of the “terror state” Israel. Russia was swift to exploit Washington’s one-sided action over Jerusalem. Following the UN vote, the Kremlin confirmed that President Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan have agreed on the “realization of the right of the Palestinian people to create an independent state.”
Multiple factors are at play in shaping Turkey’s position on Jerusalem. First, the Turkish government is interested in restoring its relations with the Arab countries and in increasing its soft power in the wider Muslim world. Second, conditions in East Jerusalem have become a key issue in Turkish-Israeli tensions since the 2016 agreement to restore relations, following the 2010 Gaza flotilla crisis. Third, Turkey’s response goes beyond the Palestinian issue and involves developments in an ongoing trial in New York City concerning Turkey’s evasion of Iranian sanctions, which might result in US fines against Turkish state banks, a development that could threaten Erdoğan’s regime. It is believed that Turkey’s leader seeks political platforms to claim that the trial is “politically motivated,” and the Ankara-Washington kerfuffle over Jerusalem could be a heaven-sent gift to support Erdoğan’s narrative. Moreover, the trial is very sensitive for the Turkish domestic electorate ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections.
The Prospects of a Turkish Comeback to the Arab Street
President Trump’s ill-advised Jerusalem decision has provided a golden opportunity for Erdoğan to present himself as a defender of all Muslims against western aggression. Hosting an extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Erdoğan has boosted his image not only in the Arab world but also across the globe.
Turkey has lost much of its clout in the Middle East in the past few years, especially following setbacks in Syria. Ankara’s turn to Moscow and Tehran, specifically to seek a better outcome from the Syrian war, also tarnished its reputation among Arabs. With a strong reaction to Washington’s flawed policy toward Palestine, Turkey hopes to redress its relations with the Arab world.
Although Ankara’s attempts to further capitalize on the Palestinian issue may seem dubious, the recent events exposed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are seen as advancing economic and strategic ties with Israel while using antagonistic rhetoric against Qatar and Turkey. A few weeks ago, Saudi and Emirati officials announced the formation of a new political and military alliance. While the Trump-backed Saudi leadership aims to lead the Muslim world with a new face of a “moderate Islam,” the OIC meeting declaration condemning Trump’s Jerusalem position put Saudis and Emiratis in an awkward position. Furthermore, shortly after the US Jerusalem declaration, Israel invited Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a historic visit, referring to Saudi Arabia as a leader in the Arab world. These developments, in addition to widespread animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood and lack of enthusiasm regarding Palestinian rights, have made Turkey well-positioned to reap welcome benefits.
Yet, the enduring crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council and Erdoğan’s tense relations with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi will remain principal obstacles for Ankara. Turkey’s increasing accommodation of the Syrian regime is a double-edged sword for the Turkish government’s reputation in the Muslim world. Additionally, Erdoğan and Assad may have more reasons to cooperate if Turkey’s relations with Israel suffer further deterioration.
Turkish-Israeli Relations: No Friendship… But Never Enmity
The recent verbal spat between Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the latest incarnation of deep tensions between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
Turkey and Israel have signed a reconciliation agreement in summer 2016 after six years of turbulent relations following the 2010 Gaza flotilla crisis when nine Turkish activists were killed during a raid by Israeli commandos. According to the agreement, Turkey passed a law canceling all appeals against Israeli soldiers involved in the killings in return for Israel’s paying $20 million as compensation to the victims. The two sides also returned their ambassadors to their respective capitals and put an end to all bilateral sanctions.
But despite setbacks in diplomatic bilateral relations, economic ties between Turkey and Israel have remained strong. The trade volume has reached around $4 billion in 2017, doubling the figure for in 2011, with a projected $10 billion within five years. As Israel’s sixth largest export destination, Turkey mostly imports high-tech defense equipment. In 2016, the two countries launched an official Energy Dialogue over a potential natural gas framework agreement. To lessen its dependence on Russian gas, Turkey has considered a deal with Israel, but that has not yet been finalized.
The tensions over Jerusalem, however, will cast a long shadow over bilateral relations. In July 2017, following skirmishes around the Aqsa Mosque compound and Israel’s decision to install metal detectors there, Erdoğan harshly criticized Israel and the Turkish government called Israeli actions “a crime against humanity.” Some Israeli parliamentarians demanded that the Knesset take some measures against the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), which executed more than seventy projects in East Jerusalem in the past decade.
Turkey’s recent decision to open an embassy in East Jerusalem may cause further escalation of tensions. Israeli authorities have complete control over the city and tit-for-tat engagement is always possible, as was evident in the Gaza flotilla events in 2010. On December 22, a day after the UN vote on Trump’s decision, three Turkish nationals were detained at al-Aqsa Mosque following skirmishes with the Israeli police. The Israeli forces demanded that the Turks take off their t-shirts, emblazoned with Turkish flags, and blocked their entrance to the mosque. After the Friday prayers in the mosque, hundreds of Turks joined thousands of Muslims in protesting Israel.
On the other hand, the Turkish embassy decision can appear symbolic. Although Erdoğan earlier threatened “to cut ties with Israel” in the case that the United States declares Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Turkish government did not recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv. For economic and strategic reasons, Turkey is not interested in a complete breakdown in its relations with Israel. In fact, the current events confirmed the fact that Turkey-Israel relations are largely shaped by the interventions and heavy weight of a third party, i.e., the United States. Turkey’s use of strong language against the Trump Administration is in fact a reflection of a broader gap between Ankara and Washington.
Beyond the Palestinian Issue
One of the most interesting moments in the OIC meeting in Istanbul was Erdoğan’s criticizing the Trump Administration, with a special reference to the Kurdish YPG forces in Syria—an off-topic that had nothing to do with the Palestinian issue. Erdoğan also employed inflammatory remarks that specifically targeted the US president during and after the meeting. While he refrained during the American presidential campaign and immediately following it from targeting Trump, hoping for beneficial transactional deals, Erdoğan and the Turkish government’s anti-American discourse has now become a “new normal.” Additionally, Trump’s Jerusalem decision coincided with a highly charged ongoing trial in New York City—started in early December—that personally implicates Erdoğan. For his part, Erdoğan claims that the allegations are politically motivated to topple him; thus, his increasingly harsh verbal spats with the Trump Administration are sure to help the Turkish government’s narrative, casting doubt on the New York court’s decisions.
The judicial case of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman who was jailed in Manhattan for evading international sanctions against Iran, has indeed been one of the key issues for Ankara in the past year. In order to influence the US judicial process, the Turkish government has hired the law firm of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has close personal relations with President Trump since his election campaign. Erdoğan also sought to make a prisoner swap with the United States, exchanging Zarrab for an American clergyman held in Turkey. And despite Trump’s firing of the federal prosecutor who happened to be in charge of the case, Preet Bharara, the judicial process has proceeded further. What also alarms Ankara is the arrest of a top Turkish state bank manager and the ensuing indictment that holds major Turkish state banks as well as Turkish government officials accountable.
Thanks to Turkey’s fight for Jerusalem, any New York court verdict against Erdoğan in the massive corruption scandal and possible fines against Turkish state banks will likely be suspect in Turkey and the Arab world. Indeed, Arabs are likely to believe Erdoğan’s narrative about a supposed US-led plot against his regime.
An equally important calculus for the Turkish leader is the conservative electorate within Turkey in the runup to the critical parliamentary elections of 2019. The domestic repercussions of the Zarrab case may be disrupting, especially if the case threatens the Turkish economy. Despite the passage of a Turkish referendum approving the executive presidential system, Erdoğan’s vision of strong rule cannot be realized unless his party sweeps an overwhelming majority in parliament. The referendum’s loss in major cities led Erdoğan to forcefully demand the resignation of many mayors in the past few months. As a veteran politician, Erdoğan has been most skillful in articulating how his party is the target of a global conspiracy due to his stance against Israel; and the upcoming election campaign will be no different.
The significance of the Zarrab case within Turkey’s internal debates cannot be overstated. The case was first revealed in the December 2013 anti-corruption operations by the Turkish police, and led to the resignation of four Turkish ministers from then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s cabinet. After leaked tape-recordings about Erdoğan’s involvement in money-laundering for personal wealth hit the news, Erdoğan did not only sack the prosecutors overseeing the case but also blamed the Fethullah Gulen movement and the United States. Erdoğan’s response to the July 2016 coup attempt, therefore, was a continuation of the Turkish government’s “war against the enemies” which justifies the current state of emergency and Erdoğan’s rule by decree.
The End of the Erdoğan-Trump Honeymoon
Turkey’s original hopes from the Trump Administration have now turned into a major frustration. Aside from bilateral issues, Washington’s shortsighted policies in the Middle East have only widened the US-Turkey divide. The White House’s role in the Qatar blockade has already stirred up the Turkish government and President Trump’s unwarranted Jerusalem act raised legitimate questions about American intentions within both secular and conservative circles in Turkey. Such partisan actions appear to be self-defeating for Washington: the United States did not lose only Erdoğan’s conservative constituency but also the other half of Turkish society, including secular Turks and Kurds.
When the impartiality of the United States gets heavily questioned, the New York court case will be perceived as politically motivated—the very claim of the Turkish government. The White House should be advised that Turkey’s domestic audience does not really care if Turkish state banks evaded sanctions against Iran. Instead, they want to learn from the New York court how Erdoğan’s family acquired such enormous wealth and if Erdoğan was right in his threat perception since the 2013 investigations by Turkish authorities of the violations of sanctions against Iran. Hence, Washington should never use the court verdict as a political tool against Ankara by making hollow allegations of such things as the “Turkey-Iran nexus.” But with the Trump Administration’s temptation to confront Iran by all means, such a self-defeating step by Washington is quite likely indeed. Washington’s similar allegations against Qatar and Trump’s Jerusalem decision have only helped Iran expand its influence.