Israel facing 'diplomatic tsunami' with Arab neighbors

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 10, 2011 

JERUSALEM — The attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo has brought into sharp relief Israel's increasing isolation in a still region grappling with the changes of the Arab Spring.

Israel was forced to evacuate its ambassador and most of its diplomatic staff from Cairo this weekend after hundreds of Egyptian protesters tore down a security wall protecting the Nile-side embassy, ransacked its files and burned an Israeli flag. It came less than a week after Turkey, Israel's other major ally in the Muslim world, announced it was expelling the Israeli ambassador and downgrading its relationship to the lowest possible level after a deadly skirmish involving a Turkish aid vessel that was attempting to deliver supplies in defiance of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

With another potential predicament brewing later this month when the Palestinians are expected to request membership and statehood at the United Nations, Israeli-Arab relations appear to be plunging to their lowest point in years.

"Within a week Israel has found itself two friends down and about to face a so-called diplomatic tsunami with the Palestinians," said one European envoy in Jerusalem, who spoke on condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol.

"I would be nervous if I was an Israeli diplomat today."

The damage to relations with Egypt and Turkey has struck many Israelis. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in 1949 and Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to condemn the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo but added that the historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt was still intact.

"Egypt must not ignore the severe injury to the fabric of peace with Israel and such a blatant violation of international laws," Netanyahu said Saturday.

Officials in Israel's foreign ministry, however, said the embassy attack "could not be ignored" and marked a sharp shift in Israel's diplomatic dealings with its neighbor since the resignation in February of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — whose dictatorial regime had kept a lid on anti-Israeli sentiment.

"For a long time Israel has benefited from a positive relationship with Egypt that allowed Israel some sense of security. It is clear that Egypt today is not the Egypt of one year ago," said an Israeli diplomat who also requested anonymity.

"Now Israel will have to look at its border to the south as one more to watch and guard. The burning of the Israeli flag in Cairo symbolized much more to those of us that watched from Jerusalem."

The image of the burning flag figured prominently on Israeli television this weekend, with several commentators asking whether it would be the last time an Israeli flag flew in Egypt.

On Israel's Channel Two news, the anchorman led the Saturday evening broadcast by asking whether Israel had found itself "alone without a friend" in the region.

Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have been increasingly at odds over how to cope with the growing isolation.

Under the hawkish Lieberman's directive, foreign ministry officials have begun drafting a list of "punishments" for Turkey. Meanwhile, Netanyahu's office said it had heeded calls for restraint and a tempering of hostilities between the two nations.

Turkish officials have said that relations with Israel will not improve until Israel apologizes for the killing last year of nine Turkish nationals aboard a boat that aimed to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Israel has stood by its blockade, and its position was recently bolstered by a U.N. report that found the blockade lawful. The same report, however, said that Israel had used unnecessary and excessive force in stopping boats aiming to break the blockade, including the storming of the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship by Israeli naval commandos, who killed the Turkish nationals.

American officials have tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an apology from Israel to Turkey over the incident. Relations had already soured over Israel's recent war in Gaza and a series of diplomatic snubs by Lieberman and his deputy.

In about 10 days, Israel likely will face another diplomatic hurdle when the Palestinians are expected to launch a bid for statehood at the U.N. General Assembly. Israel has been maneuvering to quash the bid — which the United States opposes and has threatened to veto — but Palestinians have said they'll go forward and attempt to win two-thirds support for an independent state that would include East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Several European countries have signaled their willingness to vote in favor of the Palestinian state, putting Israel in a difficult position.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who will help launch the bid at the U.N., told McClatchy that Israel had "put itself in a corner."

"We will go forward with this despite the threats from Israel and its allies. When the vote happens Israel will see how isolated it truly is," Ashrawi said. She added that the United States, Israel's main ally, would also be "embarrassed."

"I think the United States has been warned time and time again — from its own people — that its partnership with Israel might not be in its best interest right now," she said. "But they continue to stand by Israel, and ignore the changes in the region that the Arab Spring is bringing."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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