Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday in a bid to help calm tensions surrounding the Temple Mount despite objections from the Israeli Foreign Ministry to involving Ankara in the dispute.
The call, reportedly at Erdogan’s request, came following nearly a week of unrest in Jerusalem in the wake of a deadly terror attack last Friday by three Arab Israeli assailants who emerged from the Temple Mount and fatally shot two Israeli police officers.
Israel then temporarily closed the site amid an investigation into the attack after police said the terrorists had stashed their weapons inside the compound, and reopened it two days later with new security measures in place, including metal detectors and cameras.
Police footage released Thursday showed how the weapons were smuggled onto the site with the assistance of a fourth, as-yet-unidentified man.
In the phone call, the president told Erdogan that Israel expected Turkey to condemn the terror attack, just as Israel condemns terror attacks in Turkey, “with the understanding that terror was terror wherever it took place; in Jerusalem, in Istanbul, or in Paris,” according to a press statement issued by his office.
Rivlin told Erdogan that the terror attack Friday on the Temple Mount “a site holy for all – was intolerable, and crossed a red line which endangered the ability of all of us to live together.”
The Temple Mount is the holiest in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam which is known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and houses the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
Meanwhile, The Turkish leader urged Israel to remove the metal detectors as soon as possible.
“Within the framework of freedom of religion and worship there can be no impediment for Muslims” entering the holy site, the Anadolu news agency quoted Erdogan as telling Rivlin.
“Given the importance that Haram al-Sharif carries for the whole Islamic world, the metal detectors put in place by Israel should be removed in the shortest possible time and an end put to the tension,” Erdogan added.
Erdogan expressed “sadness” in the call to Rivlin over the “casualties in the incident.”
According to a Channel 2 report Thursday, the Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the call, fearing that it would give the Turkish president, an ally of Palestinian terror group Hamas and a fierce Israel critic, a role in the efforts to de-escalate tensions at the site and would only hurt Jerusalem’s position.
Turkey’s perceived attempt to insert itself into the situation would only hinder American and Jordanian efforts to calm tensions.
Rivlin, according to the report, however, decided to go ahead with the conversation, because he believes that the presidents of the allied nations — despite their differences and past or present animosities — should speak and that it was unacceptable to reject requests for dialogue from a counterpart.
Israel’s move to shutter the Temple Mount for two days on Friday drew condemnation, including from Turkey with a government spokesman saying it was “utterly unacceptable” and amounted to a “crime against humanity” and a “crime against freedom of religion.”
The closure also set off protests and riots near the site and around Jerusalem. Israeli officials were worried tensions over the past few days may come to a head on Friday — the Muslim holy day — should the metal detectors remain in place.
Also, Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın said Thursday that Israel’s security measures were considered by Turkey to be “attempts to change the status of al-Aqsa mosque, and we are concerned about that.” He called to preserve the status quo at the site and urged the international community to intervene.
In the call Thursday, Rivlin assured Erdogan that Israel was maintaining the status quo at the holy site under which Israel controls access to the site and the Waqf Islamic trust set up by Jordan administers activities inside the compound. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit but are prohibited from prayer.
He further explained that the security measures Israel implemented on the Temple Mount “were intended to ensure that such acts of terror could not be repeated, and that Israel was committed to safeguarding the lives of all the citizens who visited the holy places.”
Earlier this week, Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem called in the Turkish ambassador, at the direction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to express Israel’s anger at Turkey’s statements following the attack and demanded that Turkey stop the incitement.
Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel was seeking to “solve this crisis in the quietest way possible and to bring back the calm.
“We talk with the Arab world and we explain that there is absolutely no change to the status quo” on the holy site, he said during an official state visit in Hungary.
Jordan has said ending tensions is in the hands of Israel which should immediately reopen the shrine without any hindrances.
Israel is in talks with Jordan over the situation, according to the Waqf.
Turkey and Israel reconciled last year after nearly a decade of a break-down in ties that ruptured following the May 2010 IDF raid on a Turkish vessel seeking to break Israel’s military blockade of the Gaza Strip, in which 10 Turks were killed.
Erdogan has over the years often criticized Israel sharply, issuing incendiary statements including in May when he called the country “racist and discriminatory” over a bill that would have banned religious institutions from using loudspeakers at certain hours, a move seen as targeting Muslim mosques who issue a pre-dawn call to prayer.
Erdogan accused Israel of practices similar to South African apartheid — remarks that caused Israel to angrily describe him as a “serial human rights violator.”