Israel, Turkey invoke Ottoman Empire in spat over Jerusalem

Bilateral ties tested by persistent Temple Mount standoff, though experts doubt crisis will unravel 2016 reconciliation deal

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at a Justice and Development Party (AKP) meeting at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara on May 30, 2017. (AFP Photo/Adem Altan)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at a Justice and Development Party (AKP) meeting at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara on May 30, 2017. (AFP Photo/Adem Altan)

Further stoking bilateral tensions, Turkey on Wednesday slammed Israel for criticizing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s harsh denunciation of the Jewish state’s recent actions on the Temple Mount, drawing a fresh Israeli retort, as a bitter war of words between the former allies entered a second day.

In remarks Wednesday, Turkey also took issue with Israel for implying that religious tolerance was lacking during Ottoman rule in Jerusalem.

“At the Ottoman era, communities belonging to different religions and sects lived in peaceful coexistence and enjoyed freedom of worship for centuries. In this context, Jews would be expected to know best and appreciate the unique tolerance during the Ottoman era,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

It was responding to a statement a day earlier by Israel’s Foreign Ministry that rebuffed Ankara’s criticism of Israeli security measure on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem.

In Tuesday’s statement, Israel implied that Turkey had no right to preach to Israel, since it restricted access to the holy site during its 400-year control over the city in the previous millennium.

The area of today’s Israel was ruled by the Ottoman Empire between 1517 and 1917.

Shortly after Turkey’s statement Wednesday, Israel shot back with a fresh salvo, citing Turkey’s occupation of north Cyprus and repression of Kurds and journalists.

“It’s absurd that the Turkish government, which occupies northern Cyprus, brutally represses the Kurdish minority and jails journalists, lectures Israel, the only true democracy in the region. The days of the Ottoman Empire have passed,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, echoing Tuesday’s retort.

The spat began Tuesday when Erdogan called on Muslims to come to Israel to “protect” the Al-Aqsa Mosque after Israel installed metal detectors there in the wake of a terror attack on July 14 that saw three Arab Israelis kill two Israeli police officers using guns that had been smuggled into the site.

“If today Israeli soldiers are heedlessly able to soil the compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque with their boots citing trivial incidents as a pretext, and if Muslims’ blood is being easily shed there, then the reason for it is our failure to defend al-Quds [Jerusalem] strongly enough,” he told members of his AK Party in a meeting in the parliament in Ankara.

“Since Mecca is one half of our heart and Medina the other half, with al-Quds draping over them like a thin gauze, we should defend al-Quds together. Let’s defend it as if we are defending Mecca and Medina,” he urged.

In his speech, Erdogan stressed that the Ottoman Empire ruled over the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, for four centuries. “Our ancestors had acted with such great delicacy and sensitivity that it is impossible not to remember them with gratitude and longing given today’s cruelty.”

Jaffa Gate, one of seven gates in the Old City's walls, was restored by Jerusalem's Ottoman rulers in 1538. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jaffa Gate, one of seven gates in the Old City’s walls, was restored by Jerusalem’s Ottoman rulers in 1538. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Suleiman the Magnificent renovated the Jaffa Gate and Mimar Sinan the Architect “earmarked an area outside its western wall for the Jews to worship,” Erdogan said. “It was the Mufti of al-Quds, Muslims’ religious leader in the province, that the Christians resorted to whenever a problem erupted among adherents of various Christian denominations in the city. Our ancestors had never thought of denying other religions the right to life throughout their rule of the city for 400 years.”

He contrasted that with Israel “banning Muslims” from worshiping at the holy site, warning that his “patience is running thin.”

Israel responded angrily.

“It would be interesting to see what Erdoğan would say to the residents of Northern Cyprus or to the Kurds,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said. “Erdogan is the last one to lecture Israel.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry published its own statement Tuesday, denouncing the Turkish president’s remarks as “absurd, unfounded and distorted.”

“He would be better off dealing with the difficult problems facing his own country,” the statement read. “The days of the Ottoman Empire have passed. Jerusalem was, is, and will always be the capital of the Jewish people. In stark contrast to the past, the government in Jerusalem is committed to security, liberty, freedom of worship and respect for the rights of all minorities. Those who live in glass palaces should be wary of casting stones.”

The Ottoman surrender of Jerusalem in 1917. (Public domain)
The Ottoman surrender of Jerusalem in 1917. (Public domain)

On Wednesday, Ankara shot back, condemning the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s “presumptuous statement.”

The Al-Aqsa Mosque “ranks prominently among the highest priorities of the Islamic World,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. “As the Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza completed its 50th year, it is clear that the efforts to disregard the fact that East Jerusalem is under occupation will not contribute to the attainment of peace and stability in the region as well as the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Israel must “urgently make common sense prevail, go back to the status quo at Al-Haram Al-Sharif [the Temple Mount] and lift all the restrictions on the freedom of worship,” the statement continued.

It also asserted that authorities in modern Turkey safeguard “freedom of faith and worship.”

In recent days, several demonstrations against Israel’s actions on the Temple Mount were held outside an Istanbul synagogue.

Given the current atmosphere, Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Monday instructed employees at Israel’s diplomatic facilities in Turkey to work from home rather than coming into the office.

A Palestinian man walks past the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound before the Friday prayer in Jerusalem's Old City on January 13, 2017. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
A Palestinian man walks past the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound before the Friday prayer in Jerusalem’s Old City on January 13, 2017. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

Still, several Israeli experts on Turkey said the heated verbal exchanges are unlikely to unravel the reconciliation deal Jerusalem and Ankara struck in August 2016 after years of frozen diplomatic ties in the wake of the so-called flotilla incident. In May 2010, Israeli troops raided the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship and killed nine Turkish nationals aboard who attacked them violently. Israel has apologized and pledged to pay reparations to the families of the deceased.

“Currently it doesn’t look like there’s reason for Erdogan to cut relations again,” said Efrat Aviv from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “Even after the reconciliation deal was signed, nobody thought that Israel-Turkey relations would be amazing from now on, and that Erdogan’s attitude had entirely changed.”

Turkey’s involvement in the ongoing standoff over access to the Temple Mount should be viewed as part of Erdogan’s desire to become the leader of the Muslim world, she said. “That’s a dangerous development for Israel.”

Following the July 14 shooting, Israel took the rare step of closing the Temple Mount to Muslim worshipers on a Friday — the holiest day of the week in Islam — in order to search for weapons. The site was reopened two days later after Israel installed metal detectors at the entrances to the compound. Previously, detectors were only at the Mughrabi Gate, the entrance for non-Muslim visitors.

The move led to widespread anger among Muslims, who boycotted praying at the site in protest of the metal detectors, and sparked a series of violent clashes with Israeli security forces, during which five Palestinians were killed. Three members of an Israeli family were stabbed to death during their Sabbath meal at a West Bank settlement by a Palestinian terrorist who, after being captured, said he had carried out the attack because of the Temple Mount dispute.

The metal detectors were removed overnight Monday amid intense pressure from Muslim countries, including Turkey, but worshipers have yet to declare the crisis over, insisting that Israel do away with all new security arrangements put in place in the wake of the July 14 attack before they return to the Mount.

Erdogan himself echoed those sentiments on Wednesday.

“Israel took the right step to remove the metal detectors to help lower tension,” he said at a meeting on further education in the Islamic world in Ankara. “But is it enough according to our wishes? No, it is not.”

Erdogan added that Turkey “cannot tolerate” constraints placed on Muslims visiting the site during Friday prayers. “The Israeli government want to destroy the Islamic character of Jerusalem with a new practice every day,” he said.

Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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