A familiar tune, but new tactics: Erdoğan goes on the defensive with Jerusalem as his objective

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak analyzes the motivations behind Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's inflammatory speech on 8 May 2017.
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Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 8 May 2017

Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 8 May 2017

Normalization of fragile relations between Jerusalem and Ankara, which was achieved in June 2016 following considerable diplomatic efforts, brought about a period of reduced tension between the two countries. This period ended on May 8, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for Turkish citizens to visit Jerusalem and strongly criticized Israel's proposed "Muezzin Law" at the “Jerusalem Foundations” summit held in Turkey. The timing of Erdoğan’s comments was not a coincidence; the proposed legislation in Israel has inflamed sentiments in Turkey, as it fueled public debate in Israel.

Israeli supporters of the law assert that the law is not anti-Islamic, referring  to Egypt’s laws that prohibit the use of amplifying devices in mosques during hours of rest. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of Turkish media view the story in an entirely different light.

In almost every case, the Turkish media does not engage with the issue of amplification devices in mosques, instead arguing that Israel is violating Muslims' freedom of religion and worship by banning morning prayers altogether. In light of a trend of increasing Turkish religiosity, it is not surprising that the Israeli Knesset's proposed legislation has seized headlines and become a subject of discussion on social media in Turkey.

Beyond playing on the heartstrings of religious sentiment, Erdoğan's sharp rhetoric against Israel provides him with leverage in internal politics and foreign policy.  Erdoğan's approach has remained consistent since the diplomatic incident at the Davos Summit of 2009. Then, against the backdrop of Israeli "Operation Cast Lead," Erdoğan railed against the late former Israeli President Shimon Peres by shouting, "You know very well how to kill people," and stormed off the stage following Peres' subsequent defense of Israel's position.

This rhetoric paid off for Erdoğan at the ballot box and beyond; at the time of the Davos Summit, Erdoğan was considered by the Arab public to be one of the most popular leaders in the Muslim world.

Erdoğan identified and understood the instrumental value of religion in managing his country, and began his campaign to Islamicize secular Turkey through the Turkish Religious Affairs Authority, known as "Diyanet." In 2002, the budget of this governmental body was approximately 550 million Turkish liras. Today, its five-year allocation stands at approximately 40 billion Turkish liras. For Erdoğan, 8 billion a year is a bargain. With the help of this generous budget, the Religious Affairs Authority provides religious services to Sunni citizens. Beyond this, the Authority is also responsible for building mosques worldwide, from Maryland, United States to Cologne, Germany. Additionally, the Authority has begun to influence the daily lives of ordinary Turkish citizens by distributing nonbinding religious rulings through television, radio, the Internet, and social media.

This Islamicization quickly percolated, and soon produced a revolution of the Turkish public consciousness, affecting tourism and pilgrimage to the holy cities of Islam. In 2014, Jerusalem was added to the list of destinations for Turkish pilgrims, namely those intending to visit Mecca and Medina. With this important step, the Authority declared unequivocally that it planned to return Jerusalem to the Turkish-Islamic consciousness. Against the backdrop of these developments, the head of the Religious Affairs Authority Mehmet Görmez visited Jerusalem in 2015 and prayed at the Temple Mount.  

When taking into account the unfolding events in Turkey, Erdoğan's recent call for Turkish citizens to visit Jerusalem should surprise no one. Erdoğan's Islamist worldview determines Turkey's position regarding the the potential decision to move the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – a scenario which Turkey is working through all available channels to prevent. Turkey has warned U.S President Trump not to move "one stone" in the Holy Land, lest it provoke an immediate escalation in the region.

Unlike the period that preceded the normalization of relations between Israel and Turkey, Erdoğan is now undertaking preventive measures. In contrast to the past, he is not simply attacking Israel for its own sake. With this, the Turkish president has proven once again that the end of President Obama's administration – which knew how to show Netanyahu the cold shoulder – and the beginning of President Trump's administration – which has been embraced warmly by  Israeli leadership – has elicited a redesign of Turkish foreign policy toward Israel.

Turkey aims to protect its important ties with the United States, and because of this, refrains from instigating direct conflict with Israel. However, Erdoğan's incendiary speech at the Jerusalem Summit in Turkey on May 8 showed that when he feels conflict has been imposed upon him by Israel, and when he feels he must take preventive measures, the Turkish president has no intention of sitting in silence.

 This article originally appeared in Hebrew on Walla! 

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is a junior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC), Tel Aviv University. He serves as Turkey analyst for the Doron Halpern Network Analysis Desk  and is co-editor of Turkeyscope.  hayeytan[at]tauex.tau.ac.il