Turkey Strongman Erdogan Tries to Overtake Saudi Arabia As Palestinians' Biggest Supporter

Officials from across the Middle East, including the Palestinian Authority, are warning Israel about the influence of Turkey's strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in East Jerusalem, according to reports.

Officials from diverse countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia have warned Israel that Turkey's leader is attempting to extend its influence into East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, even members of the Palestinian Authority have said that Erdogan is trying to lay claim to the issue of Jerusalem, according to the Israeli center-left newspaper Haaretz.

The city of Jerusalem is a hot-button issue between Israelis and Palestinians. The city is currently controlled by Israel, but the eastern half has been envisioned as the future capital of a Palestinian state—if a two-state solution is eventually reached between the two parties. This tension was exacerbated when the Trump administration decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which many viewed as a de facto acceptance of Israel's control over the city.

Erdogan was a vocal critic of the U.S. decision to move the embassy. In December, after President Donald Trump announced his decision to move the embassy, Erdogan hosted a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation that brought together leaders of 57 countries that called on the world to recognize "the State of Palestine and East Jerusalem as its occupied capital." Representatives of Jordan also attended the event.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes his supporters during a rally at Istanbul's Yenikapi fairground to show solidarity with Palestinians after Israels aggression against Palestinian civilians on the Gaza border on May 18, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. Getty Images

Israeli officials said Erdogan is also donating funds to Islamic Organizations in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, purchasing real estate and organizing tours of East Jerusalem for Turkish Islamic organizations. Officials say hundreds of Turks have been regularly traveling to Jerusalem for pro-Palestinian protests.

Some analysts argued that Turkey is attempting to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest champion of the Palestinian cause.

"For decades, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as the leading champion of Sunni Islam. One way they've done that is by bankrolling Palestinian causes, including funding the Palestinian Authority to the tune of $20 million a month," Chris Meserole, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, told Newsweek.

"Yet Saudi efforts in the West Bank pose a problem for President Erdogan. He's made it no secret that he wants to restore Turkey to what he views as its rightful place atop Sunni Islam. Yet so long as the Saudis are viewed as the defenders of the Palestinians, that's not a mantle he can steal. That's why Erdogan is cultivating support within East Jerusalem—and why the Palestinian Authority is pushing back," Meserole continued.

A protester looks on as she listens to the speech of the Turkish President during a protest rally in Istanbul on May 18, 2018, against the recent killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border and the US embassy move to Jerusalem. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Ryan Gingeras, an expert on Turkey at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that it's also likely Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority, which currently controls the West Bank but not the restive Gaza Strip, views Turkey as a representative of the despised Muslim Brotherhood. The Sunni political organization was kicked out of Egypt following a military coup in 2013, and has been demonized by countries across the Middle East ever since. Saudi Arabia and others have said the Muslim Brotherhood supports the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, which currently controls the Gaza strip and fights with the Palestinian Authority for control over the Palestinian territories.

"That [the Muslim Brotherhood] is something the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and the Saudis all concern themselves with…I'm sure all see Turkey as a stalking horse for the Ikhwan," Gingeras told Newsweek, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood by its name in Arabic.

"The Muslim Brotherhood has long found refuge in Turkey, particularly Istanbul, since [Former Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi's fall. In this case, whether Ankara actually gives the brothers direct support or not is irrelevant. For the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood enabled in Jerusalem would be scary," Gingeras added.

Last week, Erdogan won a resounding victory in Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections, affirming his grip on power and maintaining his coalition's parliamentary majority. Many Palestinians celebrated his victory.