As thousands more protesters torched police vehicles and clashed with security forces, an Egyptian commando squad rescued six embassy guards trapped inside the building. The ambassador and other embassy staff members were not present because it was Shabbos and the building was officially closed.
Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke by phone with President Obama and the chief of Egyptian intelligence, while monitoring events over a direct phone link to the besieged embassy guards. Defense Minister Ehud Barak also called US military officials to ask them to press the Egyptian military to do more to protect the embassy.
Since Mubarak’s ouster, much of the Egyptian police force has remained off the streets, and other security forces have been slow to respond to street protests. On the night of the riot, a small crew of Egyptian soldiers stood back as the crowds massed around the Israeli embassy.
“Our assessment was that they [the embassy guards] had 20 minutes to hold out, and in those 20 minutes the Egyptian commandos would arrive,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a subsequent interview. “Those were perhaps the longest minutes.”
TENSE ISRAELI-EGYPTIAN TIES
Israeli-Egyptian ties have been tense since an August 18 incident in which five Egyptian border guards were killed as Israeli troops battled terrorists who had crossed from the Sinai Peninsula to carry out a series of deadly attacks on Israeli buses and cars on the road near the Egyptian border which connects Be’er Sheva with Eilat. Eight Israeli civilians and soldiers died in the attacks and subsequent battles with the terrorists. Some of the dead terrorists had been dressed in Egyptian military uniforms.
That incident sparked the beginning of a series of street protests around the Israeli embassy, which were allowed to continue without much interference by government security forces and police.
On Friday night, the rioters burned Israeli flags and threw rocks at security forces. According to the Egyptian Health Ministry, three rioters were killed and more than 1,000 were injured in clashes with commandos who finally halted the riot.
Other members of Cairo’s international diplomatic community were critical of Egypt’s military government for letting the demonstrations at the Israeli embassy get out of hand, and worried that their own embassies could also be at risk.
The riot outside the embassy in Cairo marked a new low-point in Israeli relations with Egypt. It dramatically highlighted the growing fear that the fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood will take over the government and renounce the peace treaty with Israel.
EGYPT IN TURMOIL
Seven months after Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt is a country in turmoil. Parliamemtary elections for a new government originally scheduled for this month have been postponed until November, with a presidential election to follow, but there remains doubt about when the elections will be held.
Protests are still held regularly in Cairo’s central Tahrir square. Controversy still swirls around Mubarak’s trial. The most recent session, which was held in secret, took testimony from Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the country’s de facto head of state, about Mubarak’s actions during the January and February protests.
NETANYAHU THANKS OBAMA FOR HELP
In a televised report to the nation on the attack, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quick to condemn the attack, but emphasized that, “we will continue to preserve the peace with Egypt. It is an interest of both countries.”
He noted that the intervention of the Egyptian commandos “undoubtedly prevented a disaster,” adding that only “one door” separated the guards from the mob that had broken into the building.
He added that “we are working with the Egyptian government for a speedy return of our ambassador to Cairo.”
Netanyahu also thanked Obama, for “using all the means and influence . . . of the United States” to press the Egyptians to take action to protect the embassy and rescue the guards.
Both the US and Egypt’s military rulers moved quickly to quell the violence around the embassy, try to calm the explosive situation in Egypt and reaffirm the Camp David peace treaty.
Egypt’s information minister broadcast a statement saying that the rioters at the embassy “had put Egypt in a difficult situation. Security forces will be allowed to take all legal measures to deal with incidents of thuggery and aggression,” following a meeting of the interim government at which detention of the rioters was authorized. Cancellation of an earlier emergency law which allowed the Mubarak regime to order indefinite detention of its opponents and to curtail political activities, was one of the key demands of the protesters who ultimately toppled Mubarak. The military council said that detentions would be ended once the situation around the Israeli embassy stabilized. It also promised to beef up protection for the embassy and to put those who led the riot against it on trial.
Israel’s Ambassador to Egypt, Yitzchak Levanon, as well as about 80 embassy staff members and families, were later flown back to Israel, followed by the six rescued Israeli embassy guards on another flight, leaving only the deputy ambassador still in Cairo.
EGYPTIAN GOVERNMENT RESPONDS
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday that the “immediate crisis with property and diplomatic security in Cairo seems to have calmed. Our hope is to avoid any spillover into the larger region.”
Nuland added that the interim “Egyptian government has made clear that they regret [the incident], that they are taking steps. They did take steps. So we are hoping that it was indeed an isolated incident. . . [This] gives us some hope going forward. But obviously we all need to be vigilant.”
Nevertheless, Israeli foreign ministry expressed deep concern over the embassy attack.
“For a long time Israel has benefitted 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,” an Israeli diplomat told a reporter. “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 Yerushalayim.”
TURKEY DOWNGRADES RELATIONS WITH ISRAEL
The Cairo embassy riot took place less than a week after Turkey, once Israel’s closest strategic and military ally in the region, expelled the Israeli ambassador and further downgraded its diplomatic relationship with Israel in protest over Israel’s refusal to apologize for an incident last year when Israeli commandoes boarding a Turkish vessel attempting to run Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza were forced, in self defense, to kill 9 terrorists on board who ambushed and attacked them.
In fact, the Muslim-oriented Turkish government officials gave their unofficial support to the pro-Hamas Turkish humanitarian group which sponsored the voyage of the Mavi Marmara and allowed the terrorists on board.
The Turkish government continued to threaten Israel. Its prime minister warned darkly on September 8 that its warships in the Mediterranean would take action to guarantee “freedom of navigation” by escorting future ships making another effort to run the blockade of Gaza, even though Israel has now lifted the restrictions on imports to Gaza so much that such the blockade at this point is largely symbolic.
There were also hints that Turkey might try to interfere with Israeli efforts to develop a large natural gas field that has been recently discovered off of Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
BEHIND THE TURKISH CRISIS
The current crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations began far earlier, when Turkish officials began publicly condemning Israel for responding to the incessant rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel’s civilian population centers with an army invasion in December, 2008. A few weeks later, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a vicious verbal attack on Israeli president Shimon Peres at a panel discussion on Gaza at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. During that panel discussion, Erdogan was joined by the secretary-general of the Arab League and the secretary-general of the United Nations in beating up on Israel for invading Gaza in self defense. When the moderator of the panel gave Peres, who was the only one defending Israel, the opportunity to speak last, Erdogan, in protest, turned to Peres and said before the audience, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” and walked out. From that day forward, Israeli-Turkish relations have been steadily deteriorating.
This diplomatic shift within Turkey has not been taking place in a vacuum. Within Turkey, there have been major shifts in the fundamental nature of the government, which go a long way to explain the forces undermining its longstanding alliance and friendship with Israel.
TURKEY SHIFTING ITS GLOBAL STRATEGY
The modern Turkish state was built from the ashes of the defeated Ottoman Empire after World War I. Turkish national leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk freed Turkey of foreign occupation and established the Republic of Turkey in 1923 as a secular constitutional democracy. Since that time, the Turkish army has served as the main guarantor of that democracy and prevented Islamic forces from taking over the government.
Up until the recent victories of the Islamic-dominated Justice and Democratic Party, and the rise to power of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, Turkey has followed a Western-oriented policy, serving as a member of the NATO alliance, and aligning its regional policies with the US and the European Union. It is in this context that the leadership of the Turkish military established a close working alliance with Israel.
It has only been since the European Union rejected Turkey’s application for membership, that Gul and Erdogan made a strategic decision to turn Turkish policies away from the West and to try to reestablish Turkish leadership of the Muslim countries in the region. In the process, Erdogan and Gul have also weakened the political influence and independence of the Turkish military.
This helps to explain why Turkish leaders have turned on Israel so quickly and dramatically. Turkey, at the same time has also turned its back on Israel’s main Western supporters, and is now seeking to build replacement ties with Arab states which have always seen Israel as their enemy.
ISRAELI-TURKISH RELATIONS MAY BE BEYOND REPAIR
That is why many Israeli diplomats believe that there is nothing that Israel can do to restore its tattered ties with Turkey. They say that if the Mavi Marmara incident had never happened, Turkish leaders would have inevitably found another excuse to distance their country from Israel.
The incident which led to the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Turkey was the leaking to the media of a UN investigative report into the Mavi Marmara incident. Turkish officials, once again playing up to Arab sentiments, have contended that the Israeli naval embargo that Israel imposed on Gaza immediately after it was taken over by Hamas in 2007 was illegal under international law. It therefore claims that the attempt by the Turkish-flagged ship to run the blockade was justified, and that Israel’s use of force to enforce the blockade was illegal. As a result, it has condemned the killing of the terrorists by the boarding Israeli commandoes as a war crime, and has sought to get the international community to condemn Israel accordingly.
TURKEY EMBARRASSED BY UN REPORT
However, an inquiry into the incident by a UN commission led by two respected independent diplomats found the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza to be legal, and the use of force by the Israeli commandoes to defend themselves when attacked on board the Turkish ship to be justified. Even though the UN commission report condemned the Israeli commandoes for excessive use of force, and termed the death of the 9 Turkish terrorists as “unacceptable,” it was an embarrassment and a rebuff to the Turkish government. Turkish officials decided to lash out at Israel because they believed that Israeli officials had leaked the report to the New York Times for publication. It was well known that the commission had finished its work on the report several weeks earlier, and that its official release was delayed by Turkish officials who were trying to get its conclusions modified to place more of the blame on Israel.
Turkish diplomats then ordered the Israeli ambassador to leave the country and said that Turkish relations with Israel would not improve until Israel issued a formal apology for the incident on the Turkish ship. Israel has expressed regret for the loss of life in the incident, but has refused to formally admit wrongdoing by issuing the demanded apology.
US TRYING TO SOOTHE BOTH SIDES
American officials have tried unsuccessfully to heal the rift between Israel and Turkey, but are still hopeful that their ties will eventually be mended.
State Department official Nuland said, “We were pleased to see that some of the more extreme statements on both the Turkish and Israeli side with regard to their relationship seem to have been walked back in recent days. We are gratified by that. I think you know that we had been speaking to both sides on that situation.”
However, there is reason to doubt such optimistic statements about Turkey’s willingness to dial down the level of its hostility. Its leaders continue to reject the findings of the UN commission that the Israeli blockade of Gaza and its measures to enforce it were appropriate under international law. On Monday, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan told an Al-Jazeera reporter that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was “unlawful” and called its boarding of the Mavi Marmara an “act of war,” but claimed that Turkey showed “patience” by not striking back.
A MIXED ISRAELI RESPONSE
The Israeli government response to the continuing Turkish hostility has not been consistent or uniform. Netanyahu has remained firm in rejecting Turkish demands for an apology, and the right of its soldiers to defend themselves against attack, but he has not responded with anger, and has consistently demonstrated patience and restraint. However Lieberman and his diplomats have responded to each Turkish snub in kind, with a series of small retaliatory moves which some believe to be petty and counterproductive, but which others see as necessary to defend Israel’s honor.
Israel has been forced to put up silently with other direct and indirect threats to its existence in recent weeks, for fear of alienating the few international friends it has left as the diplomatic showdown in the UN approaches. From August 18-24, terrorists in Gaza fired 200 large caliber rockets and mortar shells at major cities throughout southern Israel, in retaliation for the Israeli army’s killing of the terrorists responsible for the earlier deadly attacks on the Be’er Sheva-Eilat road. Fortunately, the two Israeli Iron Dome missile defense systems now operating near Ashkelon and Be’er Sheva succeeded in shooting down most of the missiles which landed in populated areas. Unfortunately, one of those missiles did get through, killing an Israeli civilian who was driving in his car. But the Israeli government felt strongly constrained by the diplomatic situation from launching more than a token retaliation.
According to Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Stephens, Israel is still the only country in the world whose legitimacy is constantly under review, while nobody raises similar questions about the legitimacy of other countries in the region, such as Syria and Iran, which are clearly guilty of far more outrageous conduct.
Some of Israel’s most hostile critics who continue to challenge its right to exist are from within the Jewish community. For example, Stephens cites a State Department cable reporting on the comments by an associate director of the New Israel Fund, a national organization based in New York City “committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis,” who said that, “the disappearance of a Jewish state would not be the tragedy that Israelis fear since it would become more democratic.” Stephens adds that such sentiments are not unusual among the leaders of today’s secular liberal Jewish groups.
PUTTING THE THREATS IN CONTEXT
The Palestinian threat to abandon negotiations and appeal to the UN for recognition has been looming for quite some time, but the drastic deterioration in Israel’s relations with Egypt and Turkey has come on much more suddenly, and has left many Israelis feeling more isolated in the region than at any time since the start of the Oslo peace process in 1993. 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. However, it is easy to overstate the importance of those relationships. Under Mubarak, Egypt maintained a cold peace with Israel, minimizing business and cultural contacts between the two countries. Egypt also plotted with other Arab states to attack Israel’s legitimacy in the international community, and permitted Egyptian newspapers to publish the most outrageous anti-Semitic allegations.
Similarly, while Israel’s cultural and economic relations with Turkey were genuinely friendly, and their military alliance was mutually beneficial, the physical distance separating the two countries prevented the development of an even closer alliance.
ISRAEL FACING ISOLATION
Nevertheless, Israeli media commentators are now asking whether Israel is now “alone without a friend” in the region.
Israel’s remaining friends in the diplomatic community are getting nervous over the confluence of these challenging developments and are becoming concerned as well.
“Within a week Israel has found itself two friends down and about to face a so-called diplomatic tsunami with the Palestinians,” one European diplomat told an Israeli reporter. “I would be nervous if I was an Israeli diplomat today.”
While at this point, Israel is confident that the US will keep its word to veto the Palestinian Authority’s bid for official membership in the UN Security Council, there is nothing the US can do to prevent a 2/3 vote of the General Assembly from granting the Palestinians informal recognition as a non-member state, like the Vatican. This would be an upgrade from the PA’s current observer status, which it received from the UN in 1974.
THE TEST AT THE UN
While still short of full recognition, such an upgrade would enable the Palestinian to join more UN-sponsored and other international bodies such as the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Palestinians are also hoping that the vote in the General Assembly will strengthen their claim to East Yerushalayim, all of the West Bank and Gaza, putting more pressure on Israel.
Several European countries, such as Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, have signaled their willingness to vote in favor of the General Assembly measure. Russia will also vote to recognize the Palestinian state. Others, such as Germany and Italy, are likely to vote against the resolution, along with the US, which argues that by making an end run around the negotiating process, the Palestinians are actually delaying the day when they will achieve full international recognition and UN membership.
Questions still remain about what Britain and France will do. They are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but are annoyed that the Abbas is using the UN to avoid negotiating with Israel.
THE US ROLE
Esther Brimmer, US assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said that the Obama administration “will continue to fight hard” against efforts “to use the UN as the venue” to promote statehood for the Palestinians. Obama sent two Mideast envoys, David Hale and Dennis Ross, to the region to meet with Abbas in an effort to avoid a diplomatic showdown at the UN, but Abbas rejected their request that he withdraw the PA’s application for membership. Secretary of State Clinton telephoned Abbas to ask him to change course, but he refused. He has also rejected threats from leaders of Congress to block further US financial aid to the PA if it goes through with the UN initiative.
When speaking to Jewish audiences, Abbas has insisted that the PA’s bid to win recognition is not intended to delegitimize Israel. But as Alan Dershowitz points out in a Wall Street Journal column, Abbas has mastered Arafat’s old trick of talking out of both sides of his mouth, revealing his true intentions to the Palestinian street, while telling the intellectual community, including sympathetic Israeli leftists, what he knows they want to hear.
Abbas’ double game has been exposed by the rhetoric he has been using at the UN. If he only wants a Palestinian state encompassing the areas occupied by the Arabs before 1967, why has he been complaining about the Palestinians being under occupation for 63 years? This clearly indicates that his true goal is not just to turn back the clock to 1967, when Israel was recognized with reduced borders, but to 1948, before the international community accepted Israel’s right to exist. According to Dershowitz, this also explains why Abbas “is so adamant in refusing to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” even though almost every Arab state in the region is a officially a Muslim state.
This shows that Abbas UN gambit is part of a coordinated Arab plot to totally delegitimize and then destroy Israel.
“The big question looming is whether it’s worth burning bridges with the Americans to get something that may give them access to some more treaties but would not change the reality on the ground,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator who is now with the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington.
Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi claims that Israel has only itself to blame for its current diplomatic predicament. She said that by refusing Abbas’ preconditions for negotiations, 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.”
In addition Jordan’s King said on Sunday that “Jordan and the future Palestine are stronger than Israel is today. It is the Israeli who is scared today,”
INTERNAL PALESTINIAN DIVISIONS SURFACE
However, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have distanced themselves from the PA move for recognition in the UN, claiming that it was made without consultation with their leadership. Mahmoud Zahar, the head of Hamas in Gaza told the Palestinian news agency that Hamas would not permit any street demonstrations in Gaza in support of its bid for UN membership. “How can I give them the right to demonstrate in Gaza, while they do not give us that right in the West Bank?” Zahar asked rhetorically.
A spokesman for Islamic Jihad was more cautious about the PA recognition bid at the UN. He said the “move needs to be studied to make sure it will not ignore major issues such as the right of return, and the future of the Palestine Liberation Organization as an umbrella for the whole Palestinian people.”
Since the violent split with Hamas in 2007, Abbas has lost control over Gaza, and has been unable to convene a full session of the Palestinian legislature which was elected in early 2006. Hamas has refused to agree to Abbas’ call for new elections, and Abbas’ own term as the elected chairman of the PA expired more than a year ago.
NO TURNING BACK
Realistically, at this point, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are committed to making the recognition bid at the UN, which is likely to yield only limited success in the face of a certain US veto in the Security Council. The Palestinian Authority will receive added recognition and legitimacy for its claim. In the end, the inevitable General Assembly vote against Israel will be largely symbolic, and carry little legal significance. But it will certainly make it more difficult to ultimately reach a workable negotiated peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and it will lead to an increasing diplomatic isolation of Israel.