Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

In the New Middle East, the Bill Comes Due for Israel's Intransigence

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

In the New Middle East, the Bill Comes Due for Israel's Intransigence

Article excerpt

The one conclusion that can be drawn with certainty about the momentous events that began this past spring with the peaceful overthrow of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is that Middle East society and governance are undergoing fundamental and unpredictable changes that are certain to affect Israel's relations with the Arab world.

Mubarak's ousting deprived Israel of a neighboring leader who could be relied on to maintain stability in the region, and unleashed Egyptians' long simmering anger at Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Relations between the two countries were profoundly changed on Sept. 10, when thousands of Egyptians besieged the Israeli Embassy in Cairo as police stood by, and forced Israel to airlift its ambassador back to Israel.

Israel lost another critical ally in early September when Turkey broke off diplomatic relations as a result of an Israeli attack on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara two years ago as it was carrying humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Israeli commandos descended on the ship in mid-ocean and killed nine passengers.

Israel's refusal to apologize for what a U.N. review panel called an "excessive and unreasonable" use of force prompted Turkey to expel the Israeli ambassador to Ankara and suspend all military agreements. Turkey now plans to challenge Israel's blockade of Gaza at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Whatever the outcome of the current turmoil, the tacit acceptance of Israel by traditional Arab rulers may now be a thing of the past. A common theme of anti-government protests throughout the region has been a demand for dignity, freedom and justice. If the emerging regimes are truly representative of the movements that brought them to power, their policies are certain to reflect long held feelings of resentment at Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.

It was undoubtedly an awareness of Israel's increasing isolation that persuaded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in late August to depart from Israel's longstanding policy of responding to any provocation with overwhelming force. The opportunity for such a response came on Aug. 17 when an armed group crossed the Egyptian border near Eilat and killed eight Israelis. Israeli soldiers who returned fire killed three Egyptian officers, a response that angered Egyptians and helped spark the attack on Israel's embassy.

"Israel has to realize that the days in which our sons are killed without an appropriate and strong reaction are forever gone," said Arab League head Amr Moussa. He undoubtedly recalled Israel's repeated incursions into Gaza before 1967, including the February 1955 attack that killed 39 Egyptians and cut short a tentative peace overture by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

This time, however, Israel immediately apologized to the Egyptians and blamed Hamas and other Palestinian militants for the attack. The Israeli military escalated its air strikes on Gaza, and militants retaliated by firing dozens of rockets into Israel, wounding an Israeli baby and killing one adult. Despite two cease-fires, Israel continued its raids, but the feared repeat of Operation Cast Lead that devastated Gaza two years ago did not take place.

Nevertheless, at the end of two weeks at least 25 Palestinians had been killed and scores badly wounded by the Israeli raids. A health clinic, sewer facilities, electric generators and city office buildings were badly damaged. Meanwhile, there was growing doubt that Gazans had been responsible for the attack on Eilat. Hamas and other militant groups denied any involvement, and even though several of the Eilat attackers were killed, there were no signs of funerals or of grieving families in Gaza.

Regardless of who was responsible, Israeli leaders were once again able to divert attention from domestic problems to the issue of security and the need for national unity. Before the attack at Eilat, as many as 300,000 Israelis were gathering weekly in Tel Aviv and other cities demanding lower prices, affordable housing, and a more equitable division of income (see p. …

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