Turkey's Erdogan Is All Over East Jerusalem

(Bloomberg) -- From the golden Dome of the Rock mosque to the ragtag stalls of the Old City’s market, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is all over east Jerusalem.

Muslim worshipers raise his picture at Friday prayers, restaurants display the Turkish flag on their walls, and tens of thousands of his citizens have been sent to the Israeli-controlled holy city on pilgrimages to prevent its “Judaization.” Inside the cobble-stoned market, Arab merchants on Khan al-Zeit street point to once-crumbling masonry patched up by the Erdogan government, and praise Turkey for its handouts to the poor.

Perceived as one of the few Muslim leaders still championing the Palestinian cause, Erdogan’s focus on Jerusalem is part of a broader ambition to establish Turkey as the world’s foremost proponent of political Islam and resurrect its past influence in a troubled region. His growing footprint is unsettling the three governments with a direct stake in this contested city: Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. It also presents a challenge to Saudi Arabia, whose oil wealth and status as the birthplace of Islam have long established it as a patron of east Jerusalem.

Sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews, Jerusalem lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis claim it as the undivided capital of a Jewish state but Palestinians want the mostly-Arab eastern side, home to the holiest sites, as the capital of their future state. Most countries do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, but with peace talks stalled and Palestinians divided, rival governments have sought to assert their influence.

“The Saudis have Mecca and Erdogan wants Jerusalem,” says Pinhas Inbari, an Israeli analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs research center. “Israel has a critical security interest in making sure that Turkey doesn’t try to exercise authority over Al Aqsa and upset the status quo.”

A vehement critic of Israel, Erdogan is seeking to do just that. When Washington recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, over Palestinian objections, it was Erdogan who led the charge on their behalf, calling the Trump administration a ‘‘partner in bloodshed.” The Arab response was more measured. Many Arab leaders value Trump’s uncompromising policy on their regional rival Iran and it was four months before they held an Arab League summit reinforcing high-level commitment to Palestinian claims.

Leading Champion

Erdogan has gone as far as restoring the Islamic crescent to the Dome of the Rock’s glittering cap, which dominates Jerusalem’s skyline from the hilltop compound revered by Muslims as the Al Aqsa mosque complex and by Jews as Temple Mount, the site of their biblical temple.

“Protect Mecca and Medina. Protect these holy lands as your honor. Protect Jerusalem,” Erdogan said in a speech last month.

Erdogan “is a strong man who loves Palestine,” said Salahadin Nasradin, owner of a cut-rate electronics store in the market. “We pray that he will lead all Islamic countries one day.”

Hamas Benefactor

The Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t share the enthusiasm for Erdogan felt in the Old City alleys, where shopowners in a cacophony of Arabic and Hebrew hawk jewelry, religious relics and T-shirts, and the aromas of cumin and turmeric mix with the smoke from sizzling chunks of lamb.

While the Palestinian Authority welcomes Ankara’s investment in the Old City, Turkey also supports Abbas’s bitter rival, the Hamas militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, and its parent group, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. That makes Palestinian officials reluctant to speak on the record.

“Since Erdogan took office he’s been working to restore Turkey’s role as a strategic player in the region and as a rival to Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia,” said Jehad Harb, an analyst at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. “The Palestinian Authority wants the financial support that Turkey is offering, but is very cautious in its dealings” because of Turkey’s ties to Hamas, Harb said.

Potential Restrictions

Israel, whose once-warm relations with Ankara have soured under Erdogan, is watching Turkey’s growing Jerusalem foothold with suspicion, and may restrict its activities if it’s seen to be stepping up support for radical Islamist groups, said Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for public diplomacy.

“We’re monitoring it,” Oren said.

Turkey’s foreign aid agency said in its 2015 annual report -- the last with details on Jerusalem investments -- that it has undertaken more than 500 projects valued at nearly $30 million in the Palestinian territories, 81 in east Jerusalem.

Erdogan’s presence there has fueled concern in Jordan that he may challenge its historic guardianship over the eighth-century Al Aqsa complex. After Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, it allowed the Jordanian religious administration known as the Waqf to continue managing the compound, with Israeli forces maintaining security control.

“We will not accept any competition,” said Sheikh Omar al-Kiswanii, director of the Al-Aqsa mosque, from his office near the shrine, where a giant portrait of Jordan’s King Abdullah overlooks the building’s stone staircase.

Commercial Facelift

Turkey’s activities could also pose a challenge to Saudi Arabia, which has poured more than $6 billion into Palestinian programs since 2000 -- including $285 million earmarked for Jerusalem -- according to a statement in May by Abdullah Al Rabeeah, an adviser to the Royal Court and supervisor-general of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center.

The Saudi king, officially the “custodian” of Islam’s holiest mosques in Mecca and Medina, also pledged $150 million to the Palestinians in April, with a focus on maintaining Jerusalem’s Islamic heritage.

Just as Khan al-Zeit street has been adopted by Turkey, Saudi Arabia has spruced up shops along Al-Wad Street, the artery that leads from Damascus Gate to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray. Until a few months ago, a building on the street bore a stone plaque describing the work Saudi Arabia financed there, said Ziad Ghnem, 60, who owns the adjacent toy store.

“They took it down because people would line up outside hoping to get some money,” Ghnem said, chuckling amid piles of knockoff Barbie dolls, beach balls and toy guns.

Seesawing Acceptance

Israel’s acceptance of Turkish and Saudi activities has seesawed in line with diplomatic developments, said Alon Liel, a former Israeli envoy to Turkey. Erdogan was given a relatively free hand after the countries mended their rupture over a deadly 2010 Israeli naval raid on a Turkish ship challenging the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The detente fell apart in December.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Jerusalem is being encouraged as secret business ties and communications through the Trump administration and other intermediaries blossom, Liel said. While Trump’s Middle East peace team has consulted closely with the Saudis, Erdogan has been among the president’s harshest critics.

“The Saudis are friends now,” Liel said. “They probably have our blessing.”

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