On 18th August, a cross border incident between the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Palestinian militants took a new turn. Although sporadic armed clashes are nothing new between the two sides, by letting the situation seep across the Egyptian border the Israelis have jeopardized an already tenuous ´cold peace´. In responding to the deadly attacks in Eilat, the Israelis killed five Egyptian soldiers. Egyptian politicians from all sides, secular, leftist, and even Islamists fell over themselves to condemn the attacks. Needless to say, President Peres was pushed to express regret for the incident after his defense minister had already done so. However, this could be a costly mistake for the Israelis.
Post-Mubarak Egypt is less compliant and certainly more defiant towards its Israeli neighbor. Egyptian protests following the Eilat incident are a worrying indicator for Egyptian-Israeli relations in the coming months. In a region that is constantly tense, the Eilat escalation is one factor among many that demonstrates potential Israeli isolation in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Two diplomatic faux pas have furthered Israel’s beleaguered position in recent weeks. Firstly, the Eilat incident, which led to thousands of Egyptian protesters descending upon the Israeli embassy in Cairo. There were calls for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the need for a review of the 1979 Camp David Accords. This is something that would have never happened under Hosní Mubarak’s regime, but a new Egypt is less likely to take Israeli incursions on Egyptian sovereignty lightly. The likelihood of some form of future Muslim Brotherhood representation in the next Egyptian government will surely heighten tensions even more. As an event in itself, the reaction to the Eilat incident may seem minor but it demonstrates a transformation in Egyptian-Israeli relations that could have regional consequences. Added to this, an increase in anti-Israeli rhetoric, as Egyptian politicians vie for votes in the upcoming elections in November, the result may be the demise of one of the central pillars of Israel’s fractured foreign policy.
The second Israeli gaffe is the recent diplomatic spat with the Turkish government following last year’s maritime attack on a Turkish ship leading an aid flotilla to Gaza. All that was required from Netanyahu was a full apology, but his stubborn response has further entrenched Israel’s isolation. Turkey has recently upped the ante by expelling Israel’s ambassador from its country.
At a critical time when the Egyptian peace treaty is faltering, keeping on good terms with the Turks would seem like an obvious policymaking decision. Yet, Israel’s truculent attitude towards its neighbors can never be said to be predictable.
Giving that Israel is lacking allies in the region; these two foreign policy blunders represent an Israeli government out of touch with the changing landscape of Middle Eastern politics. Following the Papyrus revolution, the rules of the game have changed but Netanyahu’s government seems incapable of shifting its position away from an ossified caricature of itself.
Finding a way out of regional conflict is looking more and more difficult as old allies distance themselves from Israeli intransigence. With Palestinian statehood coming to the fore at the UN on September 20th, it seems like Netanyahu’s government is set on habitually letting in one own goal after another.
This could have two possible outcomes. The positive consequence could be that Israel’s current position becomes so untenable that its diplomatic currency becomes vastly devalued resulting in the full recognition of Palestinian statehood. With further isolation, the usual response might be for a state to consolidate its position and attempt to resolve the animosity with its old foe, the Palestinians. But Israel’s policymaking decisions remain something of a paradoxical enigma.
Regionally, its isolation is exacerbated on the domestic front. Internally, Netanyahu is paying the price for such mismanagement. The recent tent protests demonstrate the social-economic costs caused by the continued occupation and costly settler demands. With the UN vote, steadily approaching, these diplomatic blunders hasten Israel’s total exclusion from a new Arab world.
The second possible outcome is far more dangerous and worrisome – the possibility of which may lead to all out war in the region. If Israel wants to avoid this, it needs to seriously improve its relations with its neighbors. This not only means taking into account Egyptian public opinion but also entails respecting Turkey’s increased status in the region and accepting the end of its carte blanche foreign policy maneuvers on its borders, both north and south. Only if these drastic changes occur, can Israel avoid total isolation in the region. Israel needs to curb domestic discontent by addressing the longstanding thorn in its side – the continued occupation of the Palestine territories.
The writing is on the wall for Mr. Netanyahu and his politics. Israel needs to accept that the prevailing status quo in the Middle East cannot be maintained. The Arab Spring heralds a new reality which Israel must adapt to; otherwise, it will be caught short with no allies to turn to.