How to lose friends and alienate people
The Palestinian bid for statehood, due to be submitted to the United Nations next week, has long been touted by Israel as a potential turning point in its relations with the Palestinians. The move, which is likely to secure an overwhelming majority in the General Assembly, has been dubbed a "diplomatic tsunami" by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, alluding to the vast repercussions Israel will face in the wake of the crucial vote. Other members of Israel's diehard rightwing government have threatened to annul the Oslo Accords, which give the legal grounding to the very limited autonomy of the Palestinian Authority, and even to annex parts of the West Bank, the territory slated for the future Palestinian state.
The most striking aspect of Israel's rabid reaction to the Palestinian move is that it's entirely incommensurate with the outcomes next week's vote may bring about. All the more so, given that a State Department spokesperson explicitly said last week that the United States would veto the Palestinians' bid for full UN membership in the Security Council. The Palestinian would then have to make do with upgrading their current observer status to that of a non-member state, in which capacity their ability to exert diplomatic leverage on Israel will nevertheless remain very limited. Israel is likely to be humiliated on the most prestigious diplomatic battlefield, but at least on that front, the Palestinian struggle for independence is mainly symbolic.
The panic that has gripped the Israeli government ahead of the much-dreaded month of September has not only been unwarranted, but counter-productive too. Focussing almost solely on the Palestinian juggernaut, Israel has neglected key areas of its strategy: its relationship with Egypt and Turkey, two regional superpowers that were, until recently, Israel's closest allies among its neighbours. The proximity of the events was staggering. Within a week, the Israeli ambassadors were expelled from Ankara and Cairo, in the former case by a government decision following the Palmer report, and in the latter following the takeover of the Israeli embassy by an angry mob. Even before the UN vote on the Palestinian statehood, the proverbial diplomatic tsunami has splashed along the Tel Aviv coastline.
Benjamin Netanyahu's government did very little to appease its potential adversaries, when it refused to apologise for the killing of nine Turkish nationals aboard the so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla last year, and treated with insufficient seriousness the probably unintentional killing of five Egyptian soldiers by the Israeli army in the wake of the coordinated terror attack that hurled from the Sinai desert in Egypt's wild east. But there is also a good deal of truth in the Prime Minister's claims that these developments are independent of Israel's demeanour. With their EU membership bid postponed indefinitely, Turkey and its Islamist government are turning east, seeking to bolster their country's clout among the Arab and Muslim world. To this end, cooling its long-standing love affair with an increasingly belligerent Israel is essential. In Egypt, on the other hand, disgruntled protesters found in the Israeli embassy an easy target to vent their frustration at the interim government that has so far failed to live up to the high hopes evoked in Tahrir Square. The incident at the Israeli embassy, for all that, underscored the tensions that encumber the Egyptian society. It was the first time since Mubarak's departure that security forces turned against protesters, killing three and wounding dozens in the process, and more importantly, the despised emergency law, so intimately associated with the old regime's disregard for human rights, was partially restored in consequence.
And as if this is not enough, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has ordered the evacuation of the embassy in Jordan, the only Middle Eastern country with which Israel still holds fully normalised ties. Israel is reluctant to take any risks ahead of a protest rally outside its embassy in Amman, planned for this weekend, for fear it may escalate into a repetition of the Cairo debacle. That the Jordanian public opinion is predominantly anti-Israeli is hardly new; but this widespread sentiment found rare resonance in Amman's Royal Palace this week. King Abdullah, arguably the region's most moderate and even-handed leader, said on Monday in a closed meeting dedicated to the Palestinians' latest diplomatic endeavor that his country has "an army and we are ready to fight for our homeland and the future of Jordan". These extraordinary remarks came after Israeli officials tried to resuscitate the long-defunct "Jordanian option" – a veteran darling of the Israeli rightwing, wishing to eschew the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by relocating the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation to the desert kingdom, where some two thirds of the population are already of Palestinian origin.
Israel has owed its convivial relations with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan mainly to the divisions in the Arab and Muslim world, divisions so spectacularly deep that they are second only to the hollowness of the ridiculously earnest rhetoric emanating from Arab capitals, hailing with pathos an obviously non-existent united Arab front. Israel effectively ensured the perpetuation of these divisions – between moderates and extremists, pro-Western and zealous nationalists, etc. – by reiterating a (too often disingenuous) commitment to the recognition of the Palestinians' national aspirations, thereby sowing dissent between those who incline to accept Israel, provided it ends the occupation of the Palestinian territories, and those who wish to do away with the Jewish state altogether. Netanyahu, in his persistent attempts to avoid meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians, has ended up contributing more to Arab and Muslim unity than Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian leader and herald of pan-Arab nationalism, ever did in his entire lifetime.