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Muslim leaders at Erdogan-led summit declare East Jerusalem Palestine's capital

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a hastily organized meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to condemn US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and galvanize a united Muslim response.

Leaders of the world’s Muslim countries announced on Wednesday that they recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and called on the United States to reverse its decision recognizing the contested city as Israel’s capital, firing a salvo in the bitter dispute over the ancient site claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians.

The decision, made at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Istanbul, followed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call to the group to acknowledge Jerusalem as the Palestinians’ rightful capital.

Erdogan has reportedly sought to lead the response to US President Donald Trump’s declaration last week that Washington sees Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but condemned by Muslim countries around the world. The declaration unleashed violence that killed at least two Palestinians in protests last week.

Erdogan organized the OIC summit in an effort to form coherent opposition to Trump’s move as Arab leaders scrambled to respond. In a final communique obtained by Al-Monitor, the OIC said it was “declaring East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine and inviting all countries to recognize the State of Palestine and East Jerusalem as its occupied capital.”

Israelis and Palestinians both see 5,000-year-old Jerusalem as their religious and political capital. Until the formation of the Israeli state in 1948, when Israel captured Jerusalem’s western half, the city was designated a special international zone. In 1967, Israel seized control of the eastern half and later declared that Jerusalem was the nation’s “undivided” capital, a move seen by the Palestinians as an attempt to annex the east.

“I call on those nations that make a claim to international law and equity to recognize Jerusalem as the occupied capital of the Palestinian state. I reiterate my statement that Jerusalem is a red line for us,” Erdogan said at the start of the summit.

“Israel is an occupying state, and at the same time, is a terrorist state,” he continued. “Hey Trump, what else can we explain to you? You already know everything.”

Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and pledge to move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv was a sharp break with decades of US policy that said a negotiated settlement would determine the city’s fate. Most world leaders have anticipated that a peace deal would make western Jerusalem Israel’s capital and eastern Jerusalem the seat of a future Palestinian state.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was joined by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, King Abdullah of Jordan and the leaders of Qatar and Kuwait at the Istanbul summit, said Palestinians no longer accept the United States as a mediator in the decadeslong quest to broker peace with Israel and that the United Nations should now lead the process.

“Trump’s call will incite radical extremism and risks removing this as a political matter and making it a religious one, as we have repeatedly warned,” Abbas said in televised remarks that were translated into Turkish. “Jerusalem will remain the eternal capital of the Palestinian people, where Christians and Muslims will continue to live. It is not possible for us to accept otherwise.”

Turkey has repeatedly tried to carve out a role as mediator in the Middle East peace process, once enjoying close relations with both Israel and Palestinians. But its ties with Israel ruptured in 2010 over the killing by Israeli commandos of 10 Turkish activists who were attempting to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip, and full diplomatic links were only re-established last year.

A devout Muslim, Erdogan has championed the Palestinian cause but his relations with some Arab leaders is strained, especially with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and countries like Syria and Iraq see him as a divisive figure, hampering his potential role as leader of a global Islamic community.

A leadership role for a non-Arab will not be warmly received by Arabs, who make up the bulk of the world’s Muslim population, and fails to acknowledge the deep fissures between Muslim states, said Ilter Turan, professor emeritus of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. 

“Since Turkey’s foreign policy has increasingly made it partisan among problems between Arabs, its bid at leadership is unlikely to be accepted with excitement by all sides,” Turan told Al-Monitor.

But Erdogan has kept up the tough talk with Israel, and over the weekend called the Jewish state a “child-murdering country” that cares only about "occupation and plunder.” Netanyahu struck back, saying, "I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran go around international sanctions and who helps terrorists, including in Gaza, killing innocent people.”

Relations with the United States are also fraught, with senior Turkish officials insinuating Washington was behind a failed military coup in 2016 to topple Erdogan. A trial in New York looking at whether Turkey evaded US sanctions on Iran has implicated Erdogan and his close circle, and the arrests of American citizens and consular employees in Turkey have also soured ties.

On Tuesday, in yet another sign of the deteriorating US-Turkish alliance, Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster accused Turkey and Qatar of sponsoring “radical Islamist ideology” that harms Western interests.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said McMaster’s remarks were “bewildering, baseless and unacceptable.” In an emailed statement, the ministry also called on the United States to abandon its support for armed Kurdish groups in Syria and to “more concretely and effectively support our country’s determined struggle against terrorism and radicalism.”

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