Israel arrives at a tough diplomatic intersection

Israel's crises with key regional partners Egypt and Turkey could pressure the Jewish state to make a renewed push for peace with the Palestinians.

Gali Tibbon/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, convenes the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 11. Israel and Egypt's leadership have tried to limit the damage in ties after protesters stormed Israel's embassy in Cairo, trashing offices and prompting the evacuation of nearly the entire staff from Egypt.

Israel is expected to exercise "maximum restraint" as it faces a trio of regional challenges that threaten to further deepen its isolation, already more acute than the Jewish state has seen in decades.

The sharp deterioration in ties with key partners Egypt and Turkey in recent days could pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to shift its approach to regional challenges – most immediately, the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations next week.

"[The crises with Egypt and Turkey] will strengthen the parts of Netanyahu that will want a low-key response," says a former Israeli negotiator. "We’re on the verge of a major deterioration of Israel’s strategic position."

On Friday night, an Egyptian mob broke into the Israeli embassy in Cairo, prompting a commando operation to evacuate the ambassador and his staff. Just two days before, Turkey cut military trade ties with Israel for its refusal to apologize for the killing of passengers last year in clashes aboard a ship that challenged a naval blockade of Gaza.

Higher stakes for Israel's response

In recent months, Israel has been preparing a "basket" of potential responses to the Palestinian statehood campaign, running the gamut from annexing portions of the West Bank to considering recognition of a Palestinian state.

Though it is still unclear exactly what moves the Palestinians are planning at the UN beyond an appeal to the Security Council for full membership, it is clear that the stakes have become higher for Israel’s counter-moves.

Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, says that Israel has been taking a "speak softly and carry a big stick" approach in an effort not to insult Egypt, even though Israel’s press has portrayed Egypt's interim military rulers as having been slow to intervene when hundreds of demonstrators overran the Israeli embassy.

"There’s a fragile situation in Egypt…. Israel is going to do everything in its power not to help the anti-peace camp," he says.

Even the military, which has been preparing in case of mass protests in the West Bank and on Israel’s borders in response to the UN move, "understands this is a time for maximum restraint," he adds.

A diplomatic intersection

For the past two decades, Israel’s geopolitical posture in the Middle East has rested on two key regional alliances: quiet cooperation with Egypt, one of two Arab states to have made peace with Israel, and an open embrace of Turkey.

But that structure now appears to be in shambles. On Sept. 7, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expelled from Turkey all but the lowest-level Israeli diplomats and halted military commercial contracts between the governments. At the same time, he suggested that Turkey’s Navy might step up its presence in the Mediterranean.

Egypt’s interim government, meanwhile, is seen as unwilling or unable to counter popular opinion opposed to the 32-year-old peace treaty – seen by Israel and the West as a foundation of regional stability.

Now, as Israel faces what it characterizes as a "unilateral" move from Palestinians to establish sovereignty outside the Oslo peace process, it is approaching the United Nations General Assembly with weakened support from its friends and allies.

"Israel is entering September without Turkey, almost without Egypt, while Jordan is paralyzed in fear, Europe is overwhelmingly hostile and America is almost indifferent," wrote Israeli columnist Ben Caspit in the daily Maariv newspaper yesterday. "Israel's public image around the world is at a nadir, an unbridled campaign to delegitimize it is afoot and, worst of all, its best friends are beginning to lose interest."

Mr. Caspit portrayed Netanyahu as facing a diplomatic intersection at which he must choose between the hard-line policies of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and a more moderate course that could win back crucial support from Israel’s international allies.

Negotiator: Israel should embrace Palestinians' UN bid

The new tension has reignited a debate that started in wake of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster about whether a renewed peace push toward the Palestinians could defuse a potential flareup in regional opposition to Israel.

"A lot of what drives the frustration in Egypt and Turkey is the stagnation with the Palestinians," says Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv and a former peace negotiator during Ehud Barak's tenure as prime minister.

He says that if Israel embraced the Palestinian effort in the UN, it could help shape the resolution and secure UN backing for diplomatic goals such as the recognition of "two states for two peoples" – a move that would likely improve ties with Turkey and Egypt.

The liberal Haaretz newspaper today cited position papers in Israeli intelligence agencies advocating a renewed push for peace with the Palestinians. The leak likely came from the Defense Ministry, which Mr. Barak now runs. He published a statement yesterday calling on the government to reconsider its regional strategy.

"We must state our opinion … on the larger picture of what is going on around us," said Barak in a statement. "On this triangle of Turkey, Egypt, the negotiations with the Palestinians, and of the intimacy with the U.S., which has been weakened."

Ofer Zalzburg, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Belgian think tank, says many Israeli diplomats are saying a revival of negotiations will alleviate in Egypt the public pressures that the leadership is facing, and will make it harder for Mr. Erdogan to attack Israel.

Concessions could be even riskier now

But a predominant view in Netanyahu's government sees Israel as unable to sway the leadership and policies of Turkey and Egypt. Officials believe that Prime Minister Erdogan has made a strategic shift toward confrontation with Israel. Meanwhile, Egypt’s public revolt against rulers is not inspired by the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Therefore, according to this view, Israel can do little to reduce tension by granting diplomatic concessions – in fact, it may even be taking a larger risk than previously thought.

"With such uncertainty, we have to be strong and continue to try to talk to our neighbors, but we have to be careful to not give up on defensible borders that we might need later," says Uzi Dayan, a former Israeli general and a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s party.

"At the end of this tunnel, there is a hope the countries will become more democratic, but until then, we have to survive a long Islamic winter."

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