Anxiety and alarm seem to define reactions in Jerusalem as Israel momentarily found itself abruptly without an ambassador stationed in the capital of any of its three regional allies: Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, the latter of which expelled the ambassador following Israel’s refusal to apologize for the flotilla raid in which Turkish citizens lost their lives.
Some observers view this moment as a Rubicon from which Israel will not be able to turn back.
Danny Rubinstein, former Arab affairs analyst for Ha’aretz and now a lecturer at Hebrew University, said Israel is paying the price for not having already reached an agreement with the Palestinians.
“If we continue on this path, Israel will turn into either a permanent occupying force or we’ll be a bi-national state,” he said. “Today I no longer see the possibility of dividing Israel into Palestine and Israel. Just look at the geographic and demographic reality.”
As local media grew increasingly preoccupied with the avalanche of bad news, the government seemed incapable of reacting. Instead, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed only dedicated in the past few days to determining who, if anyone, would represent Israel on Sept. 23 at the U.N. General Assembly, when the Palestinians present their case for full recognition of statehood.
Speculation centered on Israel’s firebrand foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, or on its mollifying president, Shimon Peres, who announced that he had offered his services to the government. Finally, on Thursday, Netanyahu declared that he, himself, would offer Israel’s riposte at the U.N.
“The Palestinians are making real decisions and moving forward with their plans, and here, in our government, whether or not Netanyahu decides to give a speech is considered his big decision of the week,” derided opposition leader Tsippi Livni.
In preparation for any possible upheaval in the wake of the vote — even if few, if any, real changes will be felt — Israel authorized the Palestinian Authority’s purchase of anti-riot gear normally used by Israel police.
Increasing the tension, Ma’en Areikat, the Palestinian ambassador to the United States, announced last week that Jews would not be welcome to reside in any future Palestinian state.
“As a first step we need to be totally separated,” Areikat said. “After the experience of the last 44 years, of military occupation and all the conflict and friction, I think it will be in the best interest that the two peoples should be separated.”
Late last Friday night a mob in Cairo rammed the retaining wall around the building housing the Israeli embassy and invaded the mission, housed on the upper floors, trapping six security guards. In Saturday’s dawn hours two Israeli air force jets were dispatched to bring 85 diplomats and family members to safe harbor in Israel, leaving only a deputy ambassador and two guards in Egypt for the first time since 1979.
Fearing a repeat action at protests that have been announced in Amman, Israel evacuated its Jordanian embassy on Wednesday.
Yitzhak Levanon, the repatriated ambassador to Egypt who is awaiting orders to return to Cairo, described seeing “tanks and Egyptian soldiers standing by” as angry crowds approached, but no action taken to quell the riots until he desperately called for commandos to be deployed.
Despite his experience, he believes the situation is reversible. “I think that Egyptian decision-makers understand what it would mean to return to an era of hostilities,” Levanon said.
Rubinstein, however, disagreed.
“It has been clear for decades that Israel’s peace treaties with neighboring states are agreements among a cadre of politicians, and won’t survive without the support of the people. That’s why I’m not surprised by the crises with Egypt and Turkey. It could easily spread to Jordan and North Africa. I’m only surprised this didn’t happen sooner.”
Nonetheless, in the Jordanian case, the anti-Israel demonstration fizzled as only several dozen protesters showed up and police kept them well away from the embassy. On Friday night, Israel sent its ambassador back to Amman.
Eli Shaked, former ambassador to Egypt and Consul General in Istanbul, noted that “in diplomacy as in life, there is a dynamic ebb and flow.” In Turkey, he blamed the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the breakdown in relations.
“We’ve had difficulties with Turkey in the past in 62 years of diplomatic ties. There have always been ups and downs. Right now everything Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan says sounds awful — his lies and provocations — but it remains the case that Turkey is a large and important nation and has interests beyond those of Erdogan himself.”
Shaked points out that there are few commonalities between the Egyptian and Turkish situations.
“In Turkey this comes entirely from the leadership. The prime minister and the foreign minister are trying to take Turkey into conflict with Israel and possibly even with NATO and the United States.
“In Egypt, the crisis arises from the street, from the people, not from the leadership. There have been 7 or 8 months almost of anarchy in Egypt, since the Feb. 11 fall of Mubarak. As long as the Supreme Military Council remains in power, even in the weak and unstable manner we have seen so far, it will continue to safeguard Egypt’s interests in the international arena, including the special relationship with the United States, close ties to the West, and peace with Israel.
“But in the parliamentary elections I foresee a possible victory for the Muslim Brotherhood and the transformation of this previously extra-legal organization into the strongest faction in parliament. It would be an historical upset. If they get a majority they will have influence on whoever becomes Egypt’s next president, and I’m not sure peace with Israel will be secure.”
As if to underscore this point, and at the same time dramatically heighten tensions between the two countries, Egypt’s caretaker prime minster, Essam Sharaf, explicitly said that the 32-year peace treaty could be revised.
“The Camp David agreement is not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion with what would benefit the region and the case of fair peace,” Sharaf told Turkish television. “We could make a change if needed.”
Egypt’s parliamentary elections, postponed twice, are now set for November.
“In a way, the big revolution is Al Jazeera,” Rubinstein said. “For years Arab media presents horror stories about repression, humiliation and the expulsion of the Palestinians. Every day, without exaggeration. But Al Jazeera has brought this to the awareness of tens of millions. All they know about Israel is this type of news — checkpoints, dead kids, bombings, blood, pillaging, desecration of mosques and sacred places — and literally every day they see Israeli soldiers standing in front of children and women.
“So the only real question is why this didn’t happen earlier.”