Israel under pressure

Israel’s belligerent foreign policy has caused further isolation in the region, leading Turkey to downgrade ties.

Lieberman and Netanyahu
The flotilla incident that killed nine individuals last year has sparked diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Israel [EPA]

Israel is under pressure. The decline of American influence in the Middle East has combined with the Arab revolutions, Turkey’s regional ascendancy and the Palestinians’ statehood bid at the UN, to erode its global position.

Additionally, an increased awareness of Israeli apartheid around the world has worked to undermine the historically sufficient security argument used to justify the occupation of Palestine. It has been a short 20 years since the theatrical Arafat-Clinton-Rabin lawn party, and Israel has already traversed most of the distance to comprehensive global isolation. 

Israeli analysts were right in their assessments of the consequences of the revolution in Egypt. In that country, most people are sensitive to the Palestinian point of view. Many of them believe that Zionism, which is Jewish nationalism in historical Palestine, is only the most recent iteration of European colonialism.

They are unsympathetic to the argument that it was necessary to ethnically cleanse Palestine in order to establish Israel. Moreover, they believe apartheid – the system by which Israel governs the Occupied Territories – is an atrocity. 

For decades an imperious Egyptian dictatorship worked to protect Israel from popular opinion in Egypt. Its primary inducement was American money – about $2bn of it annually. But the revolution capsized Hosni Mubarak’s American jackboot and today Israel is forced to confront the irrepressible Egyptian call for Palestinian freedom.

Now Hosni Mubarak is on trial and the Egyptian-Israeli relationship is being similarly scrutinised. The Israeli ambassador’s recent flight from Cairo is a reasonable indication of where the relationship stands today. It is also probably a forward indicator.

History blindsided the Israelis in February; there was nothing they could do to preserve their strongman in Cairo. With Turkey, however, Israel’s political leadership worked with bizarre zealousness to undermine a reliable ally. By orchestrating a series of moves that showcased Israel’s contempt for Turkish lives, pride, property and humanitarian concerns, Tel Aviv succeeded in poisoning the only normal relationship it had with a Muslim-majority country.

Significantly, this occurred as Turkey sought to play a greater leadership role in the region.  

Ignoring all the signals

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signalled in 2009 – during Israel’s war on Gaza, which killed 1,400 Palestinians – that Israeli attacks on civilians would not be tolerated. The following year, Israeli commandos killed eight unarmed Turkish civilians and an American on international waters. The Turkish response was to demand an apology and compensation for the victims’ families. The Israelis refused, further incensing the Turkish leadership.

The relationship between the two countries worsened in recent weeks with the leak of a UN report on the flotilla. The report had been pushed by the Americans, who sought to use it as a vehicle for mending Ankara’s relationship with Tel Aviv. Significantly, it was to have been published after the Israelis apologised for the deaths of eight of the nine civilians (Obama has not asked Netanyahu to apologise for killing the American teenager).

Absent the apology, however, the report appeared to absolve Israel of its responsibility for the deaths, even going so far as to justify its illegal maritime siege of the Gaza Strip. The Turks reacted angrily and instructed the Israeli ambassador to return to Tel Aviv. The Israeli diplomatic mission was formally downgraded, and Turkey suspended all military ties between the two countries. Ankara also announced that Turkish naval vessels would accompany the next humanitarian mission to Gaza. The move is a direct challenge to de facto Israeli control of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Tel Aviv’s serial miscalculations vis-a-vis Ankara can be attributed to a myopic analytical scope.

The Israelis failed to successfully interpret macro-level developments in Europe and their impact on Turkey’s regional alignment; the advantages of joining the European Union have steadily declined as the financial crisis has grown more severe.

Simultaneously, the prospect of playing a regional leadership role has grown to outweigh the bit-player role Europe seemed to offer. NATO, of which Turkey is a member, has decreased in strength and influence, permitting the Turkish leadership to exercise greater national autonomy.

It is understandable, then, that the Israelis have reacted to an insistent Turkey with bewilderment. Historically, US influence in both Ankara and Cairo insulated the Israelis from the consequences of their boastful and bellicose self-regard. 

Today, however, hegemonic decline means that for the first time in decades Washington cannot rescue Israel’s leaders from their own bad decisions. That reality continues to go unrecognised in Israel, where the leadership persists in making bad decisions.

Last week, for instance, Israeli Major General Eyal Eisenberg threatened the region with all-out total war and the possibility of weapons of mass destruction being used (Israel is the only country in the region with nuclear armaments). More recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that Israel ought to arm and support PKK terrorists in Turkey.  

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are taking action on their own behalf.

The Palestinian observer delegation at the United Nations formally submitted its bid for statehood this week – a move that has long been anticipated by observers. The Americans, who still enjoy defending Israeli belligerence, have promised a veto. Despite that, the vote will result in greater Israeli isolation internationally due to widespread recognition that apartheid is wrong.

Most indications suggest that Israel’s increased global isolation will continue apace. The new Egyptian leadership – no matter who it is comprised of – will continue to object to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. An increasingly assertive Turkey will not be mollified by American entreaties and will continue to apply pressure on behalf of the Palestinians, who will pursue their right to freedom through international forums.

Indeed, the only way for Israel to gain acceptance in the broader Middle East is by ending the occupation. But that is a decision the Israelis don’t appear ready to make.

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American freelance journalist based in Cairo. He was born in the Gaza Strip, Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.