Israel alone

With key regional allies now hostile, the Jewish state appears isolated as never before

Israel alone

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Israel has never had a surplus of friends in its neighbourhood. But almost since its founding it could count on an alliance with Turkey, one of the strongest nations in the Middle East. And for more than three decades its southern border has been protected by a solid peace treaty with Arab powerhouse Egypt. Now these two pillars of Israeli security may be crumbling.

Turkish-Israeli relations frayed last year when Israeli commandos stormed a flotilla of ships from Turkey trying to reach the Gaza Strip in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade, killing nine. Turkey demanded an apology; Israel refused. Bonds between the two countries have ruptured further since. This month, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and froze military co-operation with it. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says his country is committed to ending Israel’s blockade of Gaza and has pledged that Turkish warships would protect convoys of aid to the Palestinian territory. The “Turkish navy is prepared for every scenario—even the worst one,” he told an Egyptian newspaper.

Erdogan’s boast came as he toured the newly liberated Arab countries of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Erdogan received a hero’s welcome. Turkey is a rising power, and for aspirant democrats in the region it is a model. The Turkish prime minister repeatedly denounced Israel during his tour, comparing it to a spoiled child, while urging the Arab League to support a Palestinian bid for full membership in the United Nations.

The trigger for this most recent row between Israel and Turkey is ostensibly the flotilla raid. There have been others, notably Israel’s 2008-2009 war in Gaza. But under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, a conservative one with Islamist roots, Turkey has more generally reoriented its external affairs, strengthening ties to its neighbours in the region while those with Israel have weakened. It’s a fundamental shift that won’t easily be changed.

Israel’s relations with Egypt appear no less fragile. Earlier this month, a Cairo mob ransacked the Israeli Embassy while staff hid in a reinforced safe room. The attack followed the deaths of five Egyptian policemen in the Sinai Peninsula when Israeli forces chased Palestinian militants who had attacked an Israeli bus across the border into Egypt. Israel sent military jets to evacuate the ambassador and other diplomats. Weeks later, Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said Egypt’s peace deal with Israel is “not a sacred thing” and could change.

Threats to Israel’s stability are also developing inside its borders. A Palestinian bid at the United Nations for full membership as a state based on pre-1967 borders (before the Six Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza) will be made this week. The United States says it will use its Security Council veto to block this move, but the Palestinians could then take their case to the General Assembly, which could upgrade their status to that of a non-member state like the Vatican.

Both Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank are preparing for public demonstrations. Settlers, many of whom are armed, have promised “sovereignty marches” to underscore their claim to all of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Already this month, settler attacks against Palestinian villages have increased, with cars and mosques vandalized and burned.

Reserve troops from three Israeli regiments are being mobilized, and the Palestinian Authority also has an interest in keeping protests peaceful, but this is far from guaranteed. Tensions are high everywhere. “The worst-case scenario is a third intifada. Even though no one wants it, things get out of control on the ground,” says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “When the ground is flammable, you have to focus on who are the people with matches.”

All this has left some in Israel feeling alone and besieged. “Never were we in a situation where we didn’t have any real allies around us,” says Ofra Bengio, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. “We are really so isolated here in the region.”

These threats to Israel are not existential. “Is its military still the strongest in the Middle East? I think it is,” says Makovsky. “Is there still a cohesiveness to the country that it wants to defend itself? Yes. Does it enjoy a very strong military relationship with the United States? It does. Overall I think you’d have to say it remains a very strong country.”

In fact, Bengio notes, there are Israel analysts who reject her pessimism and believe the country has never been more secure. The Syrian government is weak and faltering. Hezbollah risks losing a patron. “Yeah, Erdogan is yelling,” she says such analysts argue, “but let him yell.”

But the prospect of losing Turkey and Egypt is consequential and damaging. The Turkish and Israeli militaries and intelligence agencies had a long and mutually beneficial relationship. Peace with Egypt secured Israel’s southern flank and allowed it to focus resources elsewhere. “Israel deeply regrets the deterioration in our relationship with Turkey. We want to try to turn things around, and we hope that the Turks will be a partner in that effort,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, said in an interview with Maclean’s.

Erdogan’s rhetoric hasn’t been matched with similar belligerence from the Israeli government. And yet it’s difficult to see how this current crisis can be resolved. Bengio says she is among a minority of Israelis who thinks Israel should have apologized for the flotilla raid.  “We do not need to add Turkey as an enemy. We have enough enemies surrounding us, especially now with this Arab Spring, or Arab Winter, whatever you want to call it,” she says—alluding to Israel’s fear that hostile Islamists will eventually replace ousted dictators in places like Egypt and Libya.

An apology is unlikely. It’s also doubtful that relations between the two countries will return to their heyday of the 1990s. Israel’s goal is to minimize the damage. An Israeli official, who asked not to be named, told Maclean’s Israel “is still active behind the scenes, working with the Americans and others to see if it is possible to cut losses, to prevent an even more negative deterioration in the relationship.”

This might not be possible, according to Efraim Inbar, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. Inbar believes Turkey is no longer an ally of Israel or the West. “It is a Trojan Horse in NATO,” he says, adding that conflict with Israel serves Erdogan’s “quest for hegemony in the Arab and Muslim world.”

Barçin Yinanç, a columnist and opinion page editor at the Hürriyet Daily News in Istanbul, disputes allegations that Turkey has turned its back on the West—although she acknowledges that the debate over whether it has rages in Turkey as well.

“This government has a cultural affinity with the Arab world. I don’t deny that,” she says. “But when it comes to the substance, look at Libya. Where are we with the West? We are a NATO member and we acted together with our NATO allies in the intervention. Where are we on the issue of Syria? Turkey and the European Union are equally critical of the Syrian regime for oppressing those who are looking for peace.” Turkey can’t ignore its geography, says Yinanç. It borders Iran and Syria. “These countries are our neighbours. It’s only natural that we should be more sensitive to what will happen to these countries than Sweden or Belgium.”

Yinanç doesn’t think Israel and Turkey are lost to each other, and says cultural ties connect them. “I don’t think there is deep hatred in Israel toward Turkey, and I don’t think there is deep hatred in Turkey toward Israel. There is a basis for these two communities to reconcile. It’s the politics that makes it difficult.”

Maybe. The 2011 Turkish blockbuster Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, a festival of gore in which Turkish commandos in Israel avenge those who died on the Gaza flotilla, reflects an anti-Israeli tinge to the Turkish zeitgeist. But Israel and Turkey—and Turks and Jews—have a long and mostly positive shared history. That may count for something.

The peace between Egypt and Israel, on the other hand, has always been a cold one. Though tens of thousands of Jews once lived in Egypt, almost all left after modern Israel’s creation, many driven out. The 1979 peace treaty was strategic. It returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and ended the state of war that had existed between the two countries since 1948. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who signed the deal, was assassinated by Islamists as a result.

But at least, until today, Israel didn’t worry much about security threats from Egypt. Now it does.

“We are entering a period in the Middle East of unprecedented instability,” says the anonymous Israeli official. “Are we at the beginning of the Arab Spring? Are we in the middle of the Arab Spring? Are we at the end of the Arab Spring? Is the Arab Spring going to really bring greater freedom, as we hope it does? Or is the Arab Spring going to be commandeered by groups that share an Iranian-type ideology? Or, like we saw in Eastern Europe, will [Slobodan] Milosevic-type jingoistic nationalists come to power? We don’t know. No one knows.”

The official says he has heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compare the Arab world today to Russia in 1917. There is a revolution, but no one is sure who will emerge on top. “We can hope for the best. But we also have to plan for less positive contingencies. Not to do so would be irresponsible.”

Despite the unprecedented public protests that led to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February, the military still runs Egypt. Efraim Inbar, the Bar-Ilan University professor, believes it remains committed to peace with Israel. “But we see that its grip on its territory and the street is not as strong as it was,” he says.

Inbar also worries that a weakened Egyptian military may seek an alliance with Islamists who don’t share the military’s desire to protect peace with Israel. “That’s a difficult tiger to ride on,” he says. “Israel should realize that its border peace with Egypt is in danger, and as a result of that it must invest more in its defence to prepare for a situation when this border is no longer quiet.”

But Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the Israeli government believes the treaty is secure, and will likely remain so regardless of who ends up running Egypt. One official told him: “I can give you 1.3 billion reasons a year why no Egyptian government is going to put that at risk.” Egypt receives about $1.3 billion annually in American aid.

Levitt, however, does worry about the Sinai Peninsula. “The insecurity for Israel is not the new [Egyptian] government, but rather the freedom of movement the lack of a totalitarian regime provides to Bedouin jihadis, and Hamas’s ability to operate in Sinai, which it’s doing at will.”

The uncertainty of the changes rocking the Middle East is unsettling to Israel. Long term, however, there is the possibility that at least some of them may benefit it. Democracies don’t often go to war with other democracies, and this is the best chance the region has ever had to democratize. “We see great hope in the Arab Spring,” says Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister. “We think greater democracy, greater accountability, greater freedom in the Arab world has to be good for peace.”

Regev, like others, is concerned that the sudden opening of a closed political system will see extremist forces flourish. But peace with a dictator is never a strong guarantee of stability. A treaty that holds up under a democratic Egyptian government will be worth more than the one that was imposed on 85 million Egyptians by Hosni Mubarak.

But Regev perceives no room for optimism in the Palestinian bid for UN membership. “There are high expectations, and on the ground nothing is going to change,” he says. “We are concerned that that gap between expectations and realities can lead to frustration and violence.” What’s more, he says, a resolution proclaiming a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders will cripple the chances of a negotiated peace. “You are going to be tying the hands of a future Palestinian leadership to show flexibility in the negotiations,” he says. “Because what Palestinian leadership can settle for less than what they got from the UN? But what they get from the UN, not even the most left-of-centre Israeli government will be able to meet those demands.”

Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, disagrees. UN membership, he says, will provide a foundation for Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate more as equals. “One of the major reasons for the failure of negotiations of the last 18 years between the Palestinians and Israel is that all these negotiations happened in the context of a severe power imbalance. You have a powerful party that is negotiating with a very weak party, so why would the powerful party negotiate?”

Besides, says Sharqieh, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has little choice but to take the Palestinian bid for statehood to the United Nations. It’s what Palestinians expect, and it would cost him his political career to defy them. “Now it is not the leaders who are making decisions in the Arab world. It’s the people.”

Among them are liberals and democrats, but also Islamists, radicals and populists, who will all wield more power as their leaders wield less. “Israel,” says Makovsky, “which is used to having peace with leaders and not peace with people, is facing a new regional reality.”




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Israel alone

  1. anyone who doesnt know that israel is the worlds first line of defense against the “religion of peace” is not bright enough to realize that the muslim goal is world domination. That “death to the Infidel” is not just a catch phrase.  As someone who has and still is experiencing muslim racism and oppression. I do speak from experience. If the author of this piece wishes contact me, please do.

  2. Shift happens, and Israel never saw it coming in spite of all the warnings.

  3. The Israeli Prime Minister’s speech in the UN was a masterpiece, telling it like it is and was.
    Abbas is a rabblerouser and a liar.  The truth of the Palestinians so-called expulsion from Israel is garbage. The fled when they thought that the new Israeli state would treat them the same way the Arabs threatened to treat the ‘Jews’.  None of their Arab neighbours took the Palestinians in resulting in trouble-festering UN camps. The stand by both Harper and Obama is the right one. The Palestinians and he Israelis both must negotiate in good faith.  The UN is not worth the powder to blow it to hell as long as the Security Council is structured the way it is and as long as little pisspot countries can call the shots.      

    • Congrats, you’ve been successfully lobbied by AIPAC

      However, you need a remedial history course.

      Not to mention a global civics course.

      • Actually, his assessment is absolutely correct. You need the remedial history lesson.

        That and the UN is a bad joke, hijacked by all the fascist tyrannies, and every time it makes a move, it demonstrates once again, how irrelevant and contemptible it is.

        • Don’t waste time revising history, and giving me your distorted view of the world, because I’m not interested.

          • Israel haters and brain washed ledtists like you are about as likely to open your minds as you are to open a history book, therefore, I will not waste any more of MY time.

          • I’m not the one who hates, bub….so make it a promise to disappear.

          • I must ask what texts you wish to cite as your evidence of rampant antisemitism in the Arab world pre-1948 as there seemed to be quite a healthy Jewish population in Palestine (hovering around 30% if I am remembering correctly) which makes me wonder why so many people would choose to stay in an area that hostile to them without being forcibly detained I.e. the Holocaust. If you would like to verify my statements regarding the demographics of Palestine between 1890-1945 I referenced the Ottoman and British census records.

      • As usual you are sick. Unlike you, I was  there in the early days. Why is it that the left (and the CBC) drip with sympathy for the Palestinians. Could it be that you are antisemitic?

        • I think the 2 of you need help…asap.

          I’m probably older than you, I’m not remotely on the left, and I don’t hate countries….that’s a weird pastime you have going..

          Now stop with the nonsense and find something useful to do with your evening.

          • Poor sad Emily.

          • Run along now.

        • That’s getting a little old, isn’t it?

          • Not really. What is early?  The UN resolution setting up Israel was in 1948.  The Suez crisis was in 1957.  The six day war was in 1967.  Israel has been beset by Arab threats from the start. Is it any wonder they want defensible borders?

             Age is a question of perspective.  Sometimes people age as good wine does. Sometimes wine goes bitter. Unlike Emily, I am not in a rest home bed or tied to a chair. I surprised they let her twitter.

          • By old, I was referring to the knee jerk playing of the antisemitism card.  By doing that you lose a lot of support from those who believe in Israel’s right to exist.  Would you like it if I called you a chauvinist pig because we disagree politically?

          • Oh, I see.  But there is still plenty of it around.  I am surprised if you think the world is so pure. Is it more politically correct to say anti-Israel?

            There are a lot of antis around. 

      • Well, Emily has to have the last word, no matter what. In additionj to history lesson, how about the 800.000 jewish refugees from all Arab countries who had their properties confiscated and had to flee, mostly to Israel?

          • So- that`s 50/50, if wikipedia is right. What is than the refugee problem? Israel accepted refugee jews, Arab countries should absorb the same number of moslem Palestinians. Simple as that.

          • They are in other countries…in refugee camps where they’ve been ever since…and they want to go home

            What did you think the ‘right of return’ was?

          • Yep, Emily, I am also one of those damned DP`s, who also could feel victimized, rot, and breed like a rabbit in some camp hellhole. Instead, I decided to do something about myself. How about those jewish refugees from Arab countries? Millions of Germans after the WW2, people from India and Pakistan, and hundreds of others? They do not deserve going “home”? They just accepted the reality and moved on. And did not believe in some mullah or preacher promises of return after the winning war and annihilation of Israel.You seem to have spending your life in some cocoon, away from the `University of life`.
            At least, they are in Arab countries – same culture and language. They just love to be manipulated and feeling victimized, living from other people handouts.

  4. Why are there so many Israeli-supporters in Canada?

    • Good question.  Most Canadians are pro-Palestine as the underdog.

      • Most?? Any research data to confirm that? Show us.

          • That poll is in reference to the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, specifically, and says 46 % in favor, 25% opposed.  One can still support Palestinians returning to West Bank or Gaza and still be a supporter of Israel.

            There are those who believe a Palestinian state would simply become another Iranian proxy, if the Territories aren’t already. Hamas is certainly supported by the Iranian mad mullahs.

          • People believe a lot of things, but the time has arrived for a Palestinian state.

          • Emily, what will be the difference, if they will not recognize and accept Israel right to exist as a jewish state?

    • Netanyahu’s speech was what he wanted the world to think, not what the world knows. 

      • Not what world knows, but what it believes. There is a major difference.

  5. Israel is a joke. Israel should never have existed. Religion should never have existed. We would have been better off worshiping the sun. The sun exists everyday and by golly it’s also pretty damn awesome. Screw the middle east let them kill each other, nobody needs them or their pathetic religions. I would rather be a Hindu than a Christian, Muslim, or Jew. In fact, I’d rather be a street urchin. Jesus, whatever, angels, devils, BS, you believe it if you want. The religious are Neanderthals, antiques. Free you minds, does anyone even know how to be themselves? Most people couldn’t handle me as I am, no sir. How many idiots don’t get deadpan humor? Bunch of monkeys. People think they’re free because they spread their legs, thats what religion did to mankind. morons. Again, let them kill each, who gives a flying f*** about these primitives. A jew is an arab without the facial hair. Get it through your heads.

  6. Don’t get me wrong, I think Jews are idiots, religious Jews that is, and Jews that give to Jewish causes or take some pride in being Jewish… But I have to say, the worst thing for Jews after WW2, has been Israel. Sure it’s been fun for a bit, but take a look at the place. Sad fact is those muzzies aren’t going to evolve anytime soon. Before they do evolve they’re going to take a big nuclear shit on all those Jews. I hope they kill each other, the dumbf****. Anyhow, I believe in God, I just think the concept of God taking sides and picking winners is pure horse-s***. Realistically religion is a curse on mankind and has caused more senseless deaths and suffering in 2,000 years than in the whole history of earth, including earthquakes, volcanoes, and meteor strikes. 

    Nothing has been worse than religion. NOTHING. It’s a curse, our special curse, and look how it seeks to thrive and live on, to keep cursing us forever. Just watch as the taxpayers rant and rave about their precious Israel, and their Jesus, and their Chosen selves. We kill in the name of God, over, and over, and over. God doesn’t care, only mankind, the turds of humanity, the sea-cucumbers, you’re dead weight to be honest, GTFO, the evolved don’t want you here. Find a door, open it, go, go away now. Jump off a bridge or something.

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