The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling with former allies Egypt, Turkey and the U.S. and struggling to find support in Europe. As Israel grows increasingly isolated, the Palestinians are moving to take advantage of the international discontent over Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank. Israel is losing friends.
Over the last several months, Israel has faced a barrage of diplomatic problems from some of its typical antagonists but has also faced growing criticism from some of its traditional allies. While Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority continue to work to isolate Israel, once reliable neighbors have given Netanyahu’s government new concerns. Under Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, Turkey has consistently criticized Israeli policies and fractured its relationship with its once stable ally. Erdogan, who has been moving his country away from the West and towards more traditional Islamic partners, has led an all-out diplomatic and legal assault against Israel over the last few months. Since arriving as Prime Minister in 2003, Erdogan started moving Ankara away from Jerusalem and towards a more traditional Islamic power base. Erdogan’s friendship has grown with Ahmedinejad, Assad and Qaddaffi while he has isolated himself from Netanyahu and President Obama. Erdogan vocally increased the pressure on Netanyahu’s government after Israel repeatedly refused to apologize for a 2010 Gaza flotilla incident where nine Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli military forces after the Turkish boat entered Israeli waters and failed to follow directives. Israel said it wouldn’t apologize because it was only protecting its citizens. Erdogan responded by directing all Israeli diplomats out of Ankara and promising to take the incident to the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
After 32 years of peace between Egypt and Israel following the signing of the Camp David Accords, Egypt, too, is moving away from Israel. The fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February of this year left a leadership vacuum in Cairo that has left the once stable country in turmoil. Egypt’s border with Israel has grown increasingly hostile and those seeking to become Egypt’s next President have used the chaos to stoke nationalism. Last month, Israeli forces accidentally killed six Egyptian soldiers while pursuing Palestinian terrorists who illegally crossed into Israel via the Sinai and killed eight Israelis. The calls for Egyptian retaliation against Israel increased. It prompted a 23 year old man named Ahmed Shahat to scale the building housing the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and remove the Israeli flag. For his stunt, Egyptian leaders rewarded him with a government job and a subsidized apartment. Their actions encouraged others to seek the same reward. Last week, hundreds of Egyptians stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, tore down the protective barrier and illegally entered the building ransacking it.
The Obama Administration, too, has also had a bumpy road with Netanyahu’s government. President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech was not received well by Israeli diplomats who felt that it was a signal of changing U.S. policy. Since then, diplomats from both sides have worked hard to squash rumors of a developing feud. But earlier this year, President Obama called on Israel and Palestine to return to the bargaining table using the pre-1967 borders as a starting point with Prime Minister Netanyahu seated next to him in the Oval Office. Netanyahu bluntly disagreed with Obama in front of the assembled reporters and said it wasn’t something Israel would do.
The lingering hostilities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the stumbling leadership from the Arab Spring protests have convinced Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that he and Turkey have a greater role to play in the Arab world. Erdogan, an unabashed Islamic leader, sees the opening as a way to increase Turkey’s power. Erdogan also understands that one sure way to win public support in the Arab world, especially during this Arab Spring period, is to encourage a little anti-Israel activity. Nothing unites the Arab street like a fight with Israel. And right now, Erdogan could use the popularity to push his pro-Turkey agenda forward.
The Turkish government earlier rejected the UN’s report on the flotilla incident when it concluded that Israel’s actions were legal but excessive. While the report’s findings would have been the perfect reason to move on from the deadly incident, Erdogan chose to ignore the international body’s Palmer Report and instead rally more anti-Israeli protests. Erdogan’s insistence that Turkey wanted a formal apology was clearly an attempt to embarrass Israel. Erdogan has consistently looked for high-profile media events to make anti-Israeli statements. At the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Davos meeting, Erdogan stormed off the stage he shared with Israeli President Shimon Peres saying, ““When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” Participants were horrified but he received warm welcomes back home in Turkey. Erdogan’s actions are an attempt to rally the base of his Islamic party and that of Islamic parties throughout the Arab world. His actions aren’t helpful but it seems he doesn’t care. Recently, Erdogan went to far as to call the Israeli government’s attitude a barrier to peace in the Middle East.
Anti-Israeli statements and Egyptian nationalism are also the tools used by those individuals looking to be the next President of Egypt. President Mubarak, for all his failings, held enough political capital to keep peace with Israel by ignoring the radical elements that wanted to fight their historical enemy. The individuals looking to lead Egypt now do not have the same influence. Political candidates seeking favor with the public know that Israel is an easy rallying cry. Almost immediately after Mubarak was ousted, there were nationalist calls to reconsider the Camp David Accords. Unfortunately, no Egyptian leader was willing to calm the crowd and direct the anger towards the real enemy – an economy on the brink of collapse. The shallow excuses of unity against the Jewish enemy while fierce are sure to be short lived. Afterall, everyday Egyptians started their Arab Spring revolution to protest dwindling economic conditions and increasing unemployment. Egyptian leaders must realize that to truly calm their public they must create jobs.
President Obama’s relationship with Israeli leaders seems tense and awkward. The two sides seem to forgive and forget mistakes and usually remain supportive publicly. Obama’s early commitment in his Cairo speech to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward raised expectations but some U.S. policy positions angered Israel and tested the relationship. The Oval Office incident where Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly disagreed with Obama was a low point, but the two leaders have worked to show no discernable differences seen then. The U.S. commitment to veto a Palestinian unilateral UN declaration of statehood has shown that the two sides are still great allies. Obama is under intense support within his own political party to show unity with Israel and Netanyahu, too, is pressured by Israelis to stay close to the U.S.