Welcome to the Arab Spring, Arab-Israeli chapter. Commentators sometimes talked as if the Facebook revolutionaries had forgotten about the Palestinian issue. Not so: The “dignity revolution” is connecting, as in last week’s frightening riot at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, with the ever-flowing font of Arab shame and rage toward the Jewish state. Bidding for regional leadership is Erdogan, who thundered Monday, “Israel cannot play with our dignity.”
The first instinct for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, feeling beleaguered and friendless, has been to hunker down and say no. Nobody ever wants to give ground under pressure, but Netanyahu’s approach, while understandable, is a mistake. These are problems that Israel is going to have to answer more creatively.
When you strip away the posturing on all sides, what’s happening is that Israel now lives in an Arab neighborhood where public opinion matters. For decades, Israelis have dismissed the “Arab street,” as if presidents and kings were the only decisive voices. That approach worked so long as dictators could suppress popular opinion, but no more.
Let’s start with Erdogan’s demand for an apology. As a populist politician, he is channeling Turkish anger about the death of nine Turks aboard a ship in international waters. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton worked through the summer to craft a formula in which Netanyahu would apologize for “operational mistakes” without conceding Israel’s right to maintain its blockade of Gaza. As part of the deal, Turkey would promise not to make legal trouble for Israel.
A deal seemed tantalizingly close after many Clinton calls to Netanyahu. President Obama leaned on Erdogan, with whom he had developed some trust after a heated meeting in June 2010 in Toronto. Preserving the Turkish-Israeli relationship was so important strategically, argued U.S. officials, that Netanyahu should eat a little crow.
But Netanyahu decided no. He is said to have countered that if Israel started apologizing to Turkey, it would be pushed “to apologize everywhere for everything.” Better just to refuse. A furious Erdogan responded with the promised reprisals — including expelling the Israeli ambassador. And he set off this week on a campaign-style tour of the Arab world; Monday in Cairo, he denounced Israel as “the West’s spoiled child.”
As bad as the Turkey feud is for Israel, the looming showdown at the United Nations may be worse. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, frustrated by the U.S. inability to budge Netanyahu and create a Palestinian state, plans to ask the United Nations to declare statehood outright. This might seem a symbolic move, not worth all the angst, except that as a “state,” Palestine might be able to assert air rights, navigation rights and the like.
Israel has hoped that Washington could make it all go away — by coaxing the Palestinians back to negotiations and muffling the U.N. show. That disappearing act might have been possible a few years ago, but not now, under the glare of Arab public opinion.
Here’s what U.S. officials expect: The Palestinians will lodge their statehood request with the Security Council. America’s best hope (for which it is frantically lobbying votes) is that the council will delay action — allowing the United States to avoid a veto. An American veto, while rescuing Israel, would poison U.S. relations with the Arabs at the precise moment Obama wants to show a new American face.
If the United States deflects a showdown in the Security Council, the statehood issue will then move to the General Assembly, where adoption is all but certain. The United States and close allies will vote against it, but the real effort is crafting a resolution that limits the most damaging statehood provisions. American diplomats probably would be relieved at that outcome.
Here’s my bottom line on the collision of the new Arab Spring and the old animosities: Israelis may ultimately be more secure in a world of Arab democracies. But it will be a world where compromise is part of survival.