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.
I oppose full U.N. membership for the Palestinian territories, but I see no reason for Israel not to support observer status. It's going to happen anyway, and there's very little downside for Israel. Some have expressed concern that a Palestinian observer delegation could pressure U.N. agencies like the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel. First of all, there are numerous procedural and legal obstacles in place to prevent the ICC from going after the Jewish state. Second, there is no shortage of U.N. states willing to serve as Palestinian Israel-bashing proxies. Denying observer status to Palestinians won't stop condemnations of Israel from being passed at the U.N.; in fact, it may serve as a catalyst for even more anti-Israel activity.
The second action that Israel can take is to stop settlement activity in the West Bank. I am under no illusion that settlements are the central obstacle to peace. However, six Israeli prime ministers have endorsed, however reluctantly, a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everyone understands that this will involve the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with exact borders to be determined through negotiations. A lot of pro-Israel rhetoric on settlements tends to focus on the right of Jews to live on the West Bank, or historic Judea and Samaria. It seems to me that the question for Israel ought to be whether building houses on disputed land is a good idea, not whether Israelis have a right to live in the historic Land of Israel pending a final settlement. If two neighbors have a serious dispute over the exact location of their property line, the one who continues building on the land in question is generally considered to be acting in bad faith.
I am not necessarily saying that Israel should proceed with the peace process. However, since Israel has repeatedly promised the U.S., European Union, Palestinian leaders, and the world that it will pursue negotiations leading to the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, its continued building on that territory looks schizophrenic at best. Either abandon the peace process and continue building, or stop building and negotiate the borders. I am not suggesting that settlements are the only obstacle to peace; I am merely pointing out that they erode Israel's moral authority because they call into question its commitment to the peace process.19 comments on this story
In the end, there may be nothing that Israel can do unilaterally to repair its relations with Turkey, Egypt, or the Palestinians. However, the country needs to develop an international PR strategy that involves more than relying on America to cover its back all of the time. If Israel issued a full apology to Egypt and Turkey (though not to the activists' families), supported the Palestinian push for observer status, and ended settlement building, it might have less reason to be paranoid these days. Alas, all of these actions require something in unusually short supply these days in Jerusalem — a dose of humility.
Mark Paredes served as a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Mexico, blogs for the Jewish Journal, and will begin leading tours to Israel next year for Morris Murdock Travel. He can be reached at email@example.com.