ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Foreign Ministry rebukes Turkey envoy over Erdogan comments

In first major spat since countries re-established ties, ambassador called in for dressing down after Turkish leader accuses Israel of racism; Jerusalem mayor says city has changed only for better since Turks left

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

President Rivlin (right) and Turkey's new ambassador to Israel Mekin Okem, December 12, 2016 (Roi Avraham)
President Rivlin (right) and Turkey's new ambassador to Israel Mekin Okem, December 12, 2016 (Roi Avraham)

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday rebuked Turkey’s ambassador in Tel Aviv over statements made the previous day in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan harshly criticized Israel and called on Muslims to visit Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount to support Palestinians.

At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem telephoned Ambassador Kemal Okem for a “clarification conversation,” the ministry said, in the first major confrontation since the two countries re-established ties last year.

Rotem’s message echoed a statement the ministry had published on Monday evening, the ministry said.

“Those who systematically violate human rights in their own country should not preach to the only true democracy in the region,” Monday’s statement read. “Israel consistently protects total freedom of worship for Jews, Muslims and Christians — and will continue to do so despite the baseless slander launched against it.”

On Monday evening, Erdogan in a speech called Israel “racist and discriminatory” and said he would not allow the Knesset to outlaw the muezzin’s call to prayer (a reference to a bill that would muffle the prayer call at certain hours). “Each day that Jerusalem is under occupation is an insult to us,” he also said, at the opening ceremony of the International Forum on al-Quds Waqf in Istanbul.

Later on Monday, Erdogan discussed ways to halt the so-called “judaization” of Jerusalem with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. At a meeting in Istanbul the Turkish leader “confirmed the necessity of unifying efforts to protect Jerusalem against attempts of judaization,” according to the Palestinian Ma’an news agency.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah (2nd from left) during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 8, 2017. (Wafa)
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah (2nd from left) during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 8, 2017. (Wafa)

Erdogan’s comments elicited a host of angry responses from Israeli politicians.

His words have no basis in reality, said Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. “Unfortunately, his statements on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount kindles a fire that hurts the security of Jerusalem residents and visitors,” he said. As opposed to other parts of the Middle East, Israel safeguards the right to worship and free access to the holy places to all religions, he added.

“Erdogan’s grave words of incitement will not change the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people, and the capital of Israel,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely tweeted. The Temple Mount will remain open to all religions but “under Israeli sovereignty,” she added.

From a vantage point near the Temple Mount, Tzipi Hotovely waves the Israeli flag, with the Dome of the Rock in the background, May 1, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
From a vantage point near the Temple Mount, Tzipi Hotovely waves the Israeli flag, with the Dome of the Rock in the background, May 1, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It is surprising that Erdogan, who leads a state that occupied Jerusalem for 400 years, wants to preach to us about how to manage our city,” said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

“Unlike during the Turkish occupation, Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is a flourishing, open and free city that allows freedom of religion and worship for all. In recent years, record numbers of Muslims have visited the Temple Mount and held prayers, exercising their absolute freedom of religion under Israeli sovereignty.”

The Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem is 3,000 years old, Barkat said, adding that Jewish roots can be seen “in every corner of the city.”

Added Barkat: “As we celebrate 50 years of reunited Jerusalem, I invite Erdogan to visit our city and to be amazed by the situation on the ground — a situation that has changed only for the better since the Turks ruled here.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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