Twenty-two leaders in the Islamic world were gathering in Istanbul Wednesday in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The meeting comes as unrest in the Middle East continues, along with growing criticism over the Jerusalem move.
The gathering is under the auspices of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, OIC. Turkey currently leads the OIC and the emergency summit was called by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I am inviting the countries who value international law and fairness to recognize occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine,” Erdogan told leaders at the start of the gathering Wednesday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Bangladeshi President Abdoul Hamid and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are among the 22 heads of state and government due to attend. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with 23 other counties, will be represented at the foreign minister level.
Some of the sharpest criticism came from Abbas, who told leaders on Wednesday that Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State was — in his words — “a crime,” and said the Palestinians would not accept a U.S. role in the peace process “from now on.” “We are here today to say together and in clear language: Jerusalem was, still is and will always be the capital of the State of Palestine,” Abbas said.
While there has been widespread criticism of Trump’s Jerusalem decision, questions remain of whether anger over the move can overcome political divisions within the Islamic world, in particular, among Arab leaders.
“The Arab world cannot take a unified stance without the consent of Saudi Arabia or Egypt,” wrote Hurriyet daily news columnist Barcin Yinanc Tuesday. “The House of Saud, as well as Egypt’s current military ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, both need U.S. support to maintain power and also to stand against Iran, which they see as gaining predominance with its advances in Iraq and Syria,” Yinanc said.
The situation is further complicated by existing tension between summit host Erdogan and key players. “Saudi Arabia is more and more distancing itself from Turkey,” noted Huseyin Bagci, international relations professor at Ankara’s Middle Eastern Technical University. A possible sign of that distance is the absence of the Saudi King and Crown Prince at the Istanbul summit.
Officially, Saudi Arabia has sharply criticized Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. A Saudi statement called the move “unjustified and irresponsible” and “a big step back in efforts to advance the peace process.”
But Turkish pro-government media have accused Riyadh of tacitly approving Trump’s move, and in Ankara there are growing suspicions that Riyadh’s allegiances could be shifting.”There is belief that this already exists, since Trump’s famous sword dance with the Saudi leaders,” said political columnist Semih Idiz of the Al Monitor website, referring to Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. Idiz points to pronouncements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Iran, “and when you read in between lines, his [Netanyahu’s] support of the growing Saudi-U.S. relationship has left people in Turkey thinking that there is this axis already there of Saudi-Israel and U.S,” Idiz said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu, speaking on Turkish television Tuesday, chided some Arab countries for failing take a more robust stance against Washington, saying Donald Trump “scares them.” “It seems that some Arab countries refrain from challenging Trump,” said the Turkish top diplomat.
Despite the serious diplomatic obstacles, Erdogan hopes the summit will set up an action plan to counter Trump, under the title of the Istanbul Declaration.
Erdogan has spearheaded opposition among both Muslim and European leaders to oppose the U.S. leader’s decision on Jerusalem. During his visit to Ankara Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed Erdogan’s stance.
Wednesday’s summit gives the Turkish president a world stage at a time when he has been facing growing isolation from some of his traditional allies. The differences among the countries attending the summit are expected to pose a challenge for Erdogan. But with violent confrontations still breaking out over Jerusalem, observers expect him to capitalize on the expressions of anger and stress the need for a strong and united stance.