Istanbul summit strong on the rhetoric, weak on concrete steps
More than 50 Muslim countries, led by Turkey, slammed the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but a failure to back up the rhetoric with concrete action showed the extent of internal rifts, analysts said.
A statement issued in Istanbul after a December 13 emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a body comprising 57 Muslim countries, said members “reject and condemn” the US move.
OIC members invited “all countries to recognise the state of Palestine and East Jerusalem as its occupied capital.”
The summit was called by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country holds the rotating OIC presidency and who has been one of the most vocal critics of the US decision. In his speech at the Istanbul meeting, Erdogan called Israel a “terror state” and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the United States would no longer be accepted as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Erdogan’s efforts to produce a unified and strong response to Trump’s plan were only partly successful. While criticism of the United States in the Istanbul declaration went beyond what some OIC members had said individually, less than half of OIC members sent their heads of states to the meeting.
Key US allies in the region limited their representation in Istanbul to cabinet members. Saudi Arabia, the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and host of the OIC headquarters, was represented by its minister of Islamic affairs. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates sent their foreign ministers.
Observers said the strong words in the final statement in Istanbul masked a lack of concrete steps. Gonul Tol, director of the Centre for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, pointed out that, while the Istanbul declaration was a “symbolically important move” that “projected the image of unity” in the Muslim world on the Jerusalem issue, there were no consequences. “It was the lowest common denominator. In practical terms, it changes nothing,” Tol said.
Deep divisions in the Muslim camp meant that even a potential withdrawal by the United States from its role in the Middle East would not change much, Tol added. “I don’t see how they could lead a peace process,” she said about countries at the table in Istanbul.
The OIC includes bitter regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as war-torn Syria, where several regional powers are vying for influence. Saudi Arabia also leads a quartet of regional powers in conflict with Qatar, in which Turkey and Iran take Doha’s side.
While Turkish media hailed the Istanbul summit as “historic,” the meeting’s conclusions did not go beyond the affirmation of East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinians, a stand already included in the OIC charter. The summit declaration did not include political or economic steps against Israel. Erdogan’s announcement following Trump’s declaration that Turkey might break off diplomatic relations with Israel was not mentioned.
Also, the OIC statement lacked a pledge by members to move embassies to East Jerusalem to counter Trump’s decision to build a US embassy in the holy city. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the day after the summit, said he was sure embassies would be opened in the eastern part of the city but did not offer a time frame.
The US State Department accused the OIC of prejudging the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian talks by calling the eastern part of Jerusalem the Palestinian capital, while Trump’s announcement did not specify which parts of the city he was referring to. “I think this would be the difference” between the OIC and the United States, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said after the Istanbul meeting. “We are not making any calls on borders.”
Given the failure of the OIC to come up with specific steps, Israel said it was not worried by the Istanbul summit. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the Istanbul decisions “fail to impress us,” while the Times of Israel newspaper wrote that “Erdogan and Abbas bark at Jerusalem but their threats have no bite.”
Some government critics in Turkey agreed. Ertugrul Gunay, a former minister in Erdogan’s cabinet, said on Twitter that Erdogan should cut all political, military and economic ties if he really viewed Israel as a “terror state.”
The OIC meeting highlighted Erdogan’s anti-Western rhetoric at a time of tension in Turkey’s ties with the United States over Washington’s support for Kurds in Syria and a growing suspicion by US officials concerning Erdogan’s leadership.
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, was quoted as telling a panel in Washington that NATO member Turkey and Qatar, long accused by critics of being sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood, were key supporters of a “radical Islamist ideology.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry said McMaster’s statement was “astonishing, baseless and unacceptable.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.