September 12, 2011

ISRAELIS WORRY that the Arab Spring is turning from a popular movement against dictatorship into another assault on the Jewish state, and their worry is not unfounded. Last week in Cairo a mob attacked the Israeli Embassy, forcing the evacuation of the ambassador and most of his staff; the previous week the Israeli ambassador to Turkey was expelled. Later this month Palestinians are expected to introduce a resolution on statehood at the United Nations, and Israel could be further isolated if, as expected, a large majority of the General Assembly votes in favor of it.

There’s little doubt that plenty of Arabs and Turks are angry at Israel. But it’s worth noting that, as often is the case in the Middle East, those passions are being steered by governments.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who aspires to regional leadership, has directed a campaign against the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and stoked it with incendiary statements. Mr. Erdogan is furious that a U.N. investigation concluded that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, and thus its intervention to stop a Turkish-led flotilla last year, was legal. He also finds it convenient to lambaste Israel rather than talk about neighboring Syria, where daily massacres are being carried out by a regime Mr. Erdogan cultivated.

The assault on the embassy in Cairo has been condemned by the leaders of Egypt’s popular revolution and by some leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both they and Western diplomats blame the ruling military for failing to secure the embassy, and they suspect the omission may have been part of an effort to divert rising public unrest toward a familiar target.

In the West Bank, polls have shown that President Mahmoud Abbas’s U.N. statehood initiative is regarded as a low priority by the majority of Palestinians, 60 percent of whom said the better option was resuming direct negotiations with Israel. But Mr. Abbas fears he may be the next target of popular uprising; the U.N. gambit appears aimed in part at preempting that.

This is not to say the trend is benign. Israel is looking more isolated than at any time in decades. It is more than a hapless bystander: Mr. Netanyahu’s government could have avoided a crisis with Turkey had it been willing to apologize for the deaths of nine Turks during the interception of the flotilla, which the U.N. panel rightly judged to be an excessive use of force. An incident in which five Egyptian guards were killed when Israeli forces pursued terrorists crossing the border helped to trigger the upsurge in tensions with Cairo. And Mr. Netanyahu’s slowness to embrace reasonable parameters for Palestinian statehood provided Mr. Abbas with a pretext for his U.N. initiative.

It nevertheless is in the interest of Western governments, as well as of Israel, to resist the counterproductive and irresponsible initiatives of Mr. Abbas and Mr. Erdogan. In Egypt, the military has cited the attack on the Israeli Embassy as a pretext to apply emergency laws and censor the media; those, too, are steps in the wrong direction. The core demands of the Arab Spring have nothing to do with Israel: They are about ending authoritarian rule and modernizing stagnating societies. Scapegoating Israel will not satisfy the imperative for change.