As the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood approaches, Israel has been forced to face security and diplomatic crises that challenge the peace and stability of the entire Middle East, as well as undermine the carefully wrought network of alliances that has kept the Jewish state from becoming diplomatically isolated for decades.
From souring relations with its once strong ally Turkey, to new dangers emerging in Egypt, to the growing threat from Iran, and the tide of Islamization sweeping across the Arab world, Israel is increasingly finding itself nearly alone, and threatened with instability along its borders, and the entire region.
It is surprising how quickly Israel’s relations with Turkey have gone south. They had been slowly deteriorating since Prime Minister Erdogan’s Islamist party took over the government in 2003. But the Mavi Marmara incident last year, where Turkish radicals tried to run the Gaza blockade by sea and 9 activists were killed, has accelerated the decline dramatically. A UN report released last week blamed Israel for actions that were “excessive and unreasonable,” while also blaming Turkey and organizers of the blockade runners for the deaths. The report also called the blockade “legitimate,” while criticizing Ankara for not warning activists of the consequences of trying to run the blockade.
On the heels of the report’s release, Prime Minister Erdogan demanded that Israel apologize. Prime Minister Netanyahu, while offering his regrets at the loss of life, refused, saying that Israel would never apologize for defending itself.
This was not good enough for Erdogan, who expelled the Israeli ambassador and cut military ties with the Jewish state. And in an interview with Al Jazeera television, Erdogan stated that the Gaza flotilla raid was “a cause for war” and that future Gaza-bound aid ships would be accompanied by Turkish war ships. He has since walked back from that last statement, saying that Turkey would not deploy its ships as long as Israel did not intercept the aid vessels in international waters. But the threat is there, and a clash between the Israeli and Turkish navies is a possibility if Erdogan carries through on his threat.
Erdogan’s government has now completely turned away from the West and is facing toward Iran and the Middle East. Some observers believe Erdogan wishes to supplant President Ahmadinejad of Iran as the number one champion of the Palestinians in the region. To that end, Erdogan has embarked on a tour of Arab nations, including Egypt, where he arrived to cheering throngs who chanted “Egypt-Turkey: one fist” and “brave Erdogan welcome to your second home.” His goal is to isolate Israel even further by developing a strategic partnership with Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries. Given his anti-Israeli stance, he has become very popular on the Arab street and especially in Egypt, where the Israeli embassy was overrun by a mob of protesters over the weekend, forcing a harrowing evacuation of embassy personnel, including the ambassador.
The attack on the embassy was the second in less than a month. The first incident occurred following a terrorist attack in Israel that killed seven civilians and two soldiers. The attackers infiltrated into Israel from the Egyptian side of the Sinai border crossing, and in hot pursuit of the terrorists – who were reportedly dressed in Egyptian police uniforms – three members of Egyptian security were accidentally killed by the IDF. The incident resulted in a crowd of several thousand besieging the Israeli embassy, with one man ascending to the roof of the building and tearing down the Israeli flag and replacing it with the Egyptian standard, while police and military members stood by and watched.
The second incident occurred on Friday, when thousands of Egyptians broke through the wall surrounding the embassy, trapping the ambassador and other personnel inside the building while the mob vandalized several rooms. Repeated calls to the Egyptian head of state, Field Marshal Tantawi, by US defense secretary Leon Panetta went for naught when the authorities claimed the field marshal couldn’t be found. Panetta wanted to urge the Egyptians to launch an immediate rescue operation, but Tantawi’s mysterious disappearance intensified speculation that Egypt’s generals had deliberately failed to protect the embassy for political gain.
Eventually, Egyptian commandos rescued the Israelis, but only after Panetta warned the Egyptian government of “serious consequences” if any Israelis were killed.
In fact, the military government may be trying to give the masses a scapegoat to take their minds off the slow pace of political reform. And even though the military finally acted to restore order, the ambassador and most embassy staff members were whisked to the airport and flown home in an Israeli military aircraft. Clashes with police and the army continued throughout the weekend, and the government has now said it will revive the hated Mubarak-era emergency decree in order to tamp down the unrest.
But the political maneuvering of the military government is the least of Israel’s worries when it comes to Egypt. The embassy attack has made it clear that no Israeli diplomat is safe in Egypt, and that the government’s control of the country is slipping. With the Muslim Brotherhood poised to take de facto control following elections later this year, Israel must also deal with a deteriorating security situation in the Sinai, as well as the probability that, for all intents and purposes, the peace treaty with Egypt is inoperative.
Recognizing the threat, Israel has begun to reassess its security posture along the border with Egypt. They are building a fence to deal with smuggling and infiltration, but Haaretz is reporting that Netanyahu is concerned that the Egyptian side of the Sinai is so lawless that it might “turn into a larger version of the Gaza Strip, full of weapons and launching pads aimed at Israeli territory.” If the Muslim Brotherhood takes control, one could almost be assured that such would be the case.
The current military government may find that it is to its advantage to scapegoat the Israelis, and perhaps, as some Tahrir square activists claim, even tolerate some riots and unrest to convince people that only the army can maintain order. But the bottom line is that if it cedes control of the country to the Islamists, the peace treaty with Israel will be honored in the breach. Given the temper of the Egyptian street, it is perilously unlikely that any popularly elected government will be able to maintain friendly relations with Israel and honor their commitments spelled out in the treaty.
Coupled with the break with Ankara, this has Israel scrambling for allies. The Israelis have approached Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, seeking partnership, and has also been in talks with Greece and some of the Balkan states trying to offset the loss of Turkey’s friendship. It is unclear how much help the Wahabbists in Saudi Arabia can be to the Jewish state, and Greece is a weak substitute for Turkey. But at the moment, it’s all Israel has on the table, and they have to play the hand that has been dealt them.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Israel is the likelihood that the instability in Syria, Libya, Egypt and other “Arab Spring” countries, means that tensions in the region have been ratcheted up and that it wouldn’t take much to spark a conflict that might engulf the entire Middle East. Another terrorist attack from Sinai, or a confrontation on the high seas with a Turkish warship, or an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, might light the fuse that could explode into a general war.
The problem is that Israel simply cannot afford to remain passive in the face of border infiltrations, threats from Egypt’s Islamists, and a dangerously emboldened Hamas, who would see provoking a war with Israel following its recognition as a nation as a means to forcing the international community to intervene on its side – perhaps even militarily. Surrounded by unfriendly states (even Jordan has been cooling relations recently), only the United States remains as a friend. And not only is that friendship questionable considering that the Obama administration has done all it can to bully the Israelis into making peace with Hamas, but the influence of the United States itself is at low ebb in the region. And what little pull we have with Arab countries is bound to be undermined by our expected veto of the Palestinian resolution in the Security Council later this month.
Israel has faced threats to its existence before. It was born of war, surrounded, outnumbered 10 to 1, but survived and flourished through the sheer willpower of a people who refuse to be defeated. But nearly 35 years of patient, painstaking diplomacy has unraveled in a matter of months thanks to Israel’s Islamist enemies who continue to make strides toward dominating the region. The uncertainty now facing the Jewish state will have the Israelis – and the world – on edge for the foreseeable future.
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