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Potential Blindspot for U.S. in Embassy Move to Jerusalem: Turkey-Israel Relations

Friday, March 23, 2018

The planned move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14 has already generated considerable commentary and controversy. But one potential blindspot which has not been fully discussed is how it might impact the delicate but vital triangular relationship between the United States, Israel and Turkey. If the embassy move opens a new rift between Turkey and Israel – two longtime American allies in the region – it will be a setback for U.S. interests.

Great efforts have been made by American administrations to repair relations between Turkey and Israel after the 2010 Flotilla incident. Having them break down only two years after they were restored in 2016 would be a discouraging development with broader implications beyond the bilateral Turkey-Israel relationship. It would also add yet another obstacle in the path toward promoting a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Planning for a possible new crisis between Turkey and Israel, and trying to forestall it, is therefore of importance for U.S. policymakers over the next two months.

Since the signing of the normalization agreement  between Turkey and Israel on June 2016, which restored full diplomatic relations between the two states, most of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s critical statements against Israel revolved around the issue of Jerusalem. At three points – once in May 2017, once around the Temple Mount crisis of July 2017 and later around President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 – Erdoğan voiced anger at the perceived changes around Jerusalem’s status and in temple mount. In December Erdoğan even threatened that the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will cause Turkey to cut ties with Israel if “necessary”. The shift in his focus on the Gaza strip during the six-year crisis between Israel and Turkey, to issues pertaining to Jerusalem, suggests he believes it will be a more politically useful rallying cry on the domestic and international stage.

The announcement in February of the mainly symbolic, at this point, move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has remained largely without a Turkish reaction except for a statement from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry. This can be explained either by the fact that following outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey in February there has been some attempt to relax tensions between Turkey and the United States, or that Turkey is still contemplating its full reaction.

If the embassy move to Jerusalem opens a new rift between Turkey and Israel – two longtime American allies in the region – it will be a setback for U.S. interests. 

A possible negative Turkish reaction towards the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem when the event will unfold would be unlikely to deter the Trump administration from advancing that step. It should however be taken into account when addressing the question of how to contain negative reactions to the move in the Muslim world. The move is scheduled both to be just before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and on the day that Palestinians commemorate as the “day of the catastrophe”. While the negative reactions to the December declaration of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem were strong but overall contained, this does not mean that the actual move of the embassy in May will be without violence.

In light of the possibility of early presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey this summer, confronting the United States and Israel over the issue of Jerusalem in the spring will likely result in some additional votes to Erdoğan, and hence have a bonus appeal to him. As anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism is frequently conflated in Turkey, as well as the religious importance of Jerusalem, sharp criticism of the embassy move can resonate well among voters there.

It is clear that Erdoğan, both because of ideological reasons and because of the benefits he perceives from taking a strong stance on the issue, will not back down. Still, in the negotiations with Turkey on all the issues in dispute between Ankara and Washington, the United States should also make clear that there should be limits to Turkish actions following the embassy move. In this respect, Washington should emphasize that any Turkish reaction to the embassy move should fall short of downgrading its diplomatic relations with Israel.

Washington can point to the elements that are still working in Turkish-Israeli relations – growing trade, impressive aviation relations,  Israeli roads as a possible route for Turkish exports, the need for open lines of communication in light of the regional turmoil, and that the recently signed natural gas export deal between Israeli and Egyptian companies does not preclude natural gas exports from Israel to Turkey in the future.

Washington can also pressure Jerusalem to communicate beforehand with Ankara regarding possible Turkish reactions to the embassy move, and ways in which Israeli actions following any violent outbreaks, will not endanger the continuation of diplomatic relations with Turkey. Stable diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey will only help U.S. interests in the region.

KEYWORDS: ISRAEL, PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, REX TILLERSON, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY