Istanbul summit strong on the rhetoric, weak on concrete steps

Given the failure of the OIC to come up with specific steps, Israel said it was not worried by the Istanbul summit.
December 17, 2017
Backdropped by a map of Israel and Palestinian territories, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s Extraordinary Summit in Istanbul, on December 13

Washington - 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.”

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