Israel alone

With key regional allies now hostile, the Jewish state appears isolated as never before
A demonsrator burns an IsraelI flag as he stands behind the Turkish flag during a protest against Israel in Caglayan Square in Istanbul on June 5, 2010. Nine people, eight Turks and a US national of Turkish origin were killed in the May 31 pre-dawn raid by Israeli forces on the Turkish ferry, Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the aid flotilla aiming to break the crippling blockade of Gaza. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENTKILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
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.”