Middle East Matters: Israel's unfriendly neighbors: what to do?

Published: Monday, Sept. 12 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011. Israel and Egypt's leadership have tried to limit the damage in ties after protesters stormed Israel's embassy in Cairo, trashing offices and prompting the evacuation of nearly the entire staff from Egypt in the worst crisis between the countries since their 1979 peace treaty.

AP Photo/Gali Tibbon, Pool

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Israelis have a reputation for being paranoid, for believing that the world is always against them. In light of recent events in the Middle East, it looks like some of their suspicions might be well-founded.

On Friday mobs in Egypt attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, causing the Israeli ambassador and his staff to flee the country. The attack, which came during large anti-government demonstrations in the city, confirmed the prediction of many Israeli political analysts that the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak earlier this year would encourage public expressions of anti-Israel sentiment. Unfortunately, it appears that Egypt's new leaders aren't as willing to work with Israel as Mubarak was. Israel certainly didn't help matters any when its soldiers accidentally killed five Egyptian policemen last month while pursuing terrorists across the border. The Egyptian cabinet rejected Israel's expression of regret, which it called "insufficient."

There's trouble to the north as well. Turkey, an erstwhile strategic partner, has expelled the Israeli ambassador and severed military ties over Israel's refusal to apologize for last year's killing of armed activists aboard a Turkish ship that was seeking to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Turkey had been seeking an apology and compensation for the activists' families for some time, but the final straw came with the release of a U.N. report earlier this month that recognized the legality of Israel's blockade while criticizing its use of "excessive" force on the protesters. Turkey angrily rejected the report and showed Israeli diplomats the door.

The upcoming United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood promises to be a day to remember for Israelis. We have yet to see whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will seek full U.N. membership as a state or observer status in the General Assembly (GA). The United States has promised to use its Security Council veto to nix the first option, while the second doesn't require a Security Council vote and will certainly be approved by the GA. Israel publicly opposes both options. Since the Palestinians' U.N. status is certain to be upgraded to some degree this month despite Israeli opposition, the country's image will take yet another body blow in the international arena.

What can Israel do? That question is foremost in some of the finest political minds in Jerusalem, given the varying dynamics of each bilateral relationship. In the case of Egypt, Israel has to wait and see what kind of Egyptian government is voted in this fall, then cross its fingers. In the meantime, it can issue a full apology for the killing of the policemen. It needs to work with Egypt regardless of who's in power, and even small gestures can help. Israel had to contact U.S. officials to pressure the Egyptians to act against the embassy-sacking protesters last weekend, which does not bode well for the future of Israeli-Egyptian relations.

Turkey is even more problematic, since no improvement in relations is possible unless Israel fully apologizes for the Gaza flotilla incident. I certainly don't think that the activists' families deserve apologies, but it might be wise to issue one to the country whose flag was on the flotilla ships. Especially when the country is Turkey, a NATO member that is one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East. If Israel can't issue an apology, at least it can strive to do no harm to the relationship, as the country's incompetent foreign minister did when he threatened to send an Israeli arms shipment to the anti-Turkish terrorist group PKK after learning of Ankara's decision to downgrade ties.

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