A rift in bilateral ties between Israel and Turkey has deepened amid a crisis at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, with both countries exchanging terse words last week over historic access to the religious site.
Israel installed new security measures at the Jerusalem holy site after the killing of two policemen on July 14, leading to weeks of deadly clashes in the occupied Palestinian territories, and inflaming tensions in the Arab and Islamic world.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan, a staunch supporter of Palestinians, has been vocal throughout the crisis, and last week called on all Muslims to come and “protect” the al-Aqsa mosque. The Israeli government responded by saying that the “days of the Ottoman empire have passed.”
“Jerusalem was, is, and will always be the capital of the Jewish people,” read a statement from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “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.”
Viewed as criticism of alleged religious intolerance under Ottoman rule, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry responded to the slight by noting that, before the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, “communities belonging to different religions and sects lived in peaceful co-existence 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,” the Turkish statement said.
Israel responded with another strident statement. “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.”
Beyond a war of words, tensions in Jerusalem led to protests in Turkey, with some demonstrators kicking and throwing stones at a synagogue in Istanbul, an incident swiftly condemned by Erdogan and Turkish political leaders. Israel also closed its embassy and consulate in the country as a precautionary measure.
While Israel finally removed the security measures at al-Aqsa late last week, the tit-for-tat exchanges between Turkey and Israel highlight the simmering tensions in bilateral ties, which have never fully recovered from a rupture in 2010, after Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, the flagship of a Turkish aid flotilla bound for the besieged Gaza Strip, and killed nine Turkish citizens and wounded dozens more.
The verbal spat over al-Aqsa access is the first high-profile diplomatic crisis since a reconciliation deal last year ended the six-year diplomatic standoff between the two countries, who once enjoyed a key regional alliance.
The 1990s saw a golden age in Turkey-Israel relations, underscored by close military, trade, and tourism ties. Since Erdogan’s rise to power in 2003, however, he has publicly sparred with Israel over deadly military offensives in Gaza and Lebanon, increasing his popularity in the Arab and Muslim world while causing friction with Israel.
The recent diplomatic dust-up shows that however stable the alliance may have been in the past, Turkey-Israel ties in the foreseeable future will be remain contingent on the status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.