Commentary: Blaming Israel is the scoundrel's refuge

Special to McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 13, 2011 

As the Arab revolutions stumble on the bayonets of real power in the Middle East, in Cairo, Syria and Bahrain, the street mobs and their would-be leaders blame Israel.

After Turkey was rejected by the European Union and aligned itself with Iran and Syria, they promptly started shooting their own citizens. So Turkey blames Israel.

When the United Nations examines Israel’s interception last year of a Turkish flotilla seeking to supply Gaza with aid, and finds that Israel has the right to enforce its blockade of the hostile Hamas-ruled region, Turkey rejects the UN report and blames Israel.

After Palestinian assassins from Gaza cross Egypt and kill eight Israeli civilians near Eilat, responding Israeli troops accidentally kill five Egyptian border guards. Although Israel apologizes, Egyptians blame Israel.

There is a vacuum of authority in the Middle East these days. Regimes that ruled for decades have been decapitated but not replaced. Egypt, for example, continues to be ruled by the same army and bureaucracy which served ousted President Hosni Mubarak. But the army, overwhelmed with establishing order in Cairo and the rest of Egypt, has withdrawn the police from Sinai, opening the door to chaos in this sensitive buffer zone between Egypt and Israel.

-- Bedouins seeking release of jailed comrades Sept. 10 cut the road from Cairo to the luxurious resort town at Sharm-el-Sheikh, stranding Egyptian and foreign travelers in their cars for hours in the middle of a desert.

-- Saboteurs have repeatedly blown up the gas pipeline from Sinai to Israel and Jordan, cutting off fuel exports.

-- Gunmen attacked police posts in El Arish

-- Heavily armed and trained Palestinians from Gaza crossed scores of kilometers of Egyptian territory in Sinai to attack Israeli cars on road to Eilat.

Now the seeds of violence have been sown in these unstable times.

When Israeli forces pursuing the attackers across the Egyptian border accidentally killed six Egyptian guards, thousands of angry Egyptians looted the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and demanded the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador. Egypt’s headless military government announced it would not break relations with Israel and would try 17 of the rioters who looted the Israeli Embassy.

But one wonders why this anti-Israel wave has erupted now. It seems Israel is more a target of opportunity than a burning provocation. Populists and nationalists thrive in times of uncertainty, and Egypt is no exception. No matter how hard the majority of people try to live peacefully alongside their neighbors, there are some people it seems who are determined to push the rest of us into war.

I recall the great sense of optimism from one end of Sinai to the other in the early 1980s, after the Camp David accord negotiated by President Jimmy Carter led Israel to withdraw from Sinai which it had captured in the 1967 war. In El Arish, after a dozen years under Israeli rule, the people were now under Egyptian rule. They told me Israelis were – like other people – “some good and some bad.”

The Sinai residents had lost their high-paying construction jobs in Tel Aviv but the police on the corner at home were their own people, Egyptians, and that felt really good to them.

Elsewhere in Sinai, Israelis, Europeans and Americans could travel in safety with Bedouin guides or in their own cars, visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery or climbing the mountain believed to be Mt. Sinai; or snorkeling on reefs along the Red Sea.

In Cairo itself Hebrew was heard in the markets and the Qasr-el-Nil boulevard of fine cafes and shops. Israelis returned home from visits to Luxor and Alexandria amazed at the good will shown to them. They told me the Egyptians were sweet and totally unlike what they had imagined after so many years of wars.

But when Egyptian doctors, journalists and others began to visit Israel in return, the heavy hand of chauvinism appeared. The medical, legal, journalism and other professional associations – largely dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups -- denounced any Egyptian who visited Israel as a traitor to the Arab cause and expelled them from the associations. Without membership in these associations it is impossible to practice a profession in Egypt.

So the human interaction dried up and the Camp David accord became a cold peace. But at least for 30 years the two largest military powers in the region kept Sinai demilitarized. Israel and Egypt saved billions in defense costs. (Jordan also signed a peace treaty with Israel and it too became a cold peace when the professional associations denounced and expelled anyone caught visiting Israel, even for medical treatment or training.)

Now comes Turkey, which had excellent relations with Israel for many years, even training their militaries together. Nine years ago the military-backed secular party lost power for the first time since Kemal Ataturk modernized and secularized Turkish government, script, clothing and other aspects of society in the 1920s.

The new government is more Islamic, restoring women’s use of headscarves, and improving ties with Iran, Syria and the other Arab states, especially after the European Union refused to accept its application for membership.

So Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party allowed an Islamist charity to send a flotilla of boats towards Gaza last year, in an effort to break an Israeli blockade of the Hamas –run enclave, which continues to shoot rockets into southern Israeli towns.

A new UN report last week concluded that Israel had the legal right to impose the blockade to prevent weapons entering Gaza. But it found Israel used excessive force to take over the ships. Nine Turks died when they fought with Israeli commandos.

Now Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected the U.N. report and warned that unless Israel apologizes, pays compensation and drops the blockade of Gaza, Turkish warships will escort the next convoy—possibly leading to a military clash with Israel.

In addition, Turkey does not like that Israel and Cyprus have agreed on maritime borders that will allow Israel to begin drilling for offshore gas deposits. Turkey remains at odds with Cyprus and it has occupied the northern third of the island nation since 1974.

When Turks can’t get respect from Europe, and then climb into bed politically with losers like Iran and Syria, they blame Israel.

Blaming Israel has played well in the Middle East for a long time. Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak used it for decades to justify the lack of press freedom, fair elections and fair courts.

Finally, as Turkey seeks to become a leader of the Muslim nations of the Middle East and Central Asia, it must have a gnawing memory of how that worked out last time – for 400 years the Ottoman Turks ruled the Arab nations with an iron fist, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of Arabs who know that bit of history.

So beating up on Israel remains the default position. When one cannot provide people with decent jobs, education, housing or food for their families, blame Israel.

One must pray that cooler and wiser heads prevail in Turkey, Egypt and Israel. Already there are signs the Egyptian military council and interim government will not allow the mob to dictate foreign policy towards Israel.

Unfortunately it comes quite late. If Egypt’s leaders had prevented the naysayers in the professional associations from pouring cold water on the brief Israeli-Egyptian spring in the 1980s, there would be more trust and good will today.

And Turkey, where thousands of Israeli tourists and businessmen have been welcomed with respect and trust for decades, must rethink its current leader’s need to sabotage that good will and threaten conflict with a neighbor who means it no harm.

Finally, resolution of the Palestinian dilemma must be front-burnered by all sides to pave the way for regional peace. A third Intifada could rapidly undermine all the recent economic growth in the West Bank and ignite conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah as well.

Unfortunately the United States is in a political stalemate and pre-electoral gridlock. Any pressure on Israel to compromise will be exploited as a betrayal of support for a democratic U.S. ally. However events seems to be moving too rapidly to wait until after the presidential American election for some sign that Israeli troops will be leaving Palestinian streets for good.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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