In Israel, Cairo attack deepens sense of siege

September 11, 2011

After a week in which Israel’s diplomats were forced out of Turkey and Egypt, for years its regional allies, and facing a possible United Nations vote recognizing a Palestinian state, the country is experiencing a deepening sense of siege.

Televised scenes of Egyptian protesters storming the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Friday, and dramatic media accounts of the threat faced by six security men who were trapped for hours inside, summoned up for many Israelis nightmare scenarios of a lynch by an Arab mob.

The sense of isolation was compounded by the signs of utter dependence on the United States to resolve the crisis at the embassy, where the security guards, holed up in a safe room, were freed by Egyptian commandos dispatched under heavy pressure from Washington.

The challenges on multiple fronts have generated debate here over whether Israel’s actions and policies have created its predicament or whether larger regional forces are at work.

The trigger for the outburst in Egypt, which led to the hurried airlift of the ambassador and nearly all of his staff members to Israel, was the killing of five Egyptian border guards last month as Israeli troops pursued gunmen who had crossed from Egypt and carried out a deadly attack in southern Israel.

But the roots of the anti-Israeli sentiment, bottled up during the rule of then-President Hosni Mubarak, run deeper, fueled by Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, for whom there is widespread sympathy among ordinary Egyptians and throughout the Arab world.

Gideon Levy, a columnist in the liberal daily Haaretz, traced much of the popular Egyptian anger to Israel’s war against the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009.

Televised images of that offensive, in which about 1,400 Palestinians were killed, many of them civilians, caused outrage across the Arab world. The campaign, Levy wrote in a column published Sunday, was “a fateful turning point in the attitude of the world and the region toward Israel.”

The Gaza operation also led to the fraying of relations with Turkey, whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, harshly condemned Israel’s attacks.

The relationship soured further after a deadly Israeli raid last year on a Turkish-flagged ship leading an aid flotilla seeking to defy an Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel’s refusal to apologize for the killing of nine people during clashes aboard the vessel led to a Turkish decision to downgrade relations and expel Israel’s ambassador and top diplomats, who left last week.

Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that “developments in Turkey and Egypt have coalesced” with Israeli actions, producing the crisis in ties with both nations.

In Egypt, he said, “a military junta that is effectively running the country, but with very problematic legitimacy, is both weak and looking over its shoulder at what the street is doing.” Turkey under Erdogan is trying to assert regional dominance, Avineri said, following a “neo-Ottoman hegemonistic policy” that has translated into a confrontational posture toward Israel.

Seeking to allay public concerns about the erosion in Israel’s diplomatic position, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted in a televised statement Saturday night that the challenges facing the country were linked to profound regional changes that had deeper roots than Israel’s particular actions toward Turkey, Egypt or the Palestinians.

“We have a tendency to think that everything happens because of us, that it is our fault,” Netanyahu said. “There are much more powerful forces at work.”

Asked in a television interview Saturday whether the political impasse with the Palestinians had exposed Israel to the kind of hostility shown by the protesters in Cairo, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman retorted that the upheaval sweeping the Middle East had nothing to do with the state of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

“Everything we see in the Arab world, in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria, as well as in Tahrir Square, is not because of Israel or Israeli-Palestinian relations,” Lieberman said, referring to the Cairo square that was the epicenter of demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s ouster. “It’s an internal Arab phenomenon.”

But the arguments made by Netanyahu and Lieberman have been contested within the Israeli government.

At the weekly meeting of the ministers on Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called for a meeting of Israel’s security cabinet to discuss intelligence assessments that reviving peace negotiations with the Palestinians could help ease tensions with Egypt and Turkey and improve Israel’s international standing, his spokesman said.

The prospect that a majority at the U.N. General Assembly could recognize Palestinian statehood this month has deepened a sense that Israel is facing a gathering diplomatic storm. And the ransacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo has raised the question of whether a similar scene could play out in Jordan, the only other Arab country with which Israel has a peace treaty, and where anti-government demonstrators have called for the expulsion of the ambassador and the nullification of the peace accord.

The Arab Spring was greeted with caution in Israel, where there was concern that it might unleash forces that would turn against the Jewish state. For many Israelis, those fears were confirmed by the latest events in Cairo.

Nahum Barnea, a popular writer for Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s most widely read newspaper, echoed that perception in his column Sunday.

“A straight line,” he wrote, “leads from the celebrations in Tahrir Square to the evacuation of the Israeli Embassy staff from Egypt.”

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