Meagrely getting by on back door diplomacy
This week Israel carried out key two diplomatic moves in the region. The first, a prisoner swap deal involving the release of US-Israeli national Ilan Grapel, was planned. The second, sending airplanes with a cargo of mobile homes, coats, blankets and mattresses to earthquake-stricken Turkey, was not. However both moves share one thing in common: the need to show an intention to normalise relations without giving in to anyone’s (read: Turkey or Egypt) demands.
Israel and Egypt agreed on exchanging 25 detained Egyptians for Ilan Grapel, held in Egypt since June on espionage charges. It is no surprise the deal came less than two weeks after the high-profile release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit where Egypt played an integral role in brokering the deal with Hamas, which also included the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Perhaps the new Egyptian government believed post-Shalit would be the perfect time to pressure Israel for 25 of its citizens in return for the one they believe to be a spy. But that’s rather unlikely. According to various analysts, this was more a move on the part of the US—who provides the army that now runs the country with billions of dollars in aid—to resolve the tensions that have arisen between both parties after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Most recently over the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo by protesters following the killings of Egyptian border guards when Israeli troops pursued raiders who killed eight Israelis in August.
If we look at the exchange in and of itself, the 25 prisoners detained in Israel were convicted of smuggling and drug offences. Freeing them is of no political consequence to either Israel or Egypt. So the conjecture that this could be a move to alleviate tensions given the stability of the region makes sense. What is interesting in this ordeal is Israel’s acquiescence. The fact is that Netanyahu knew he and his government had to jump at the opportunity to meet with Egypt and reassure them of their willingness to keep diplomatic relations without it sending any softened messages back home. Israel knows it cannot afford to give up Egypt’s role in negotiations with the Arab world as a whole and more importantly with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The first airplane sent by Israel's Defence Ministry left Ben Gurion Airport Thursday with humanitarian aid. According to a communiqué, Israel is planning two more flights and a freight ship to Turkey in the next few days. Although Turkish authorities had already brought 25,000 tents to the devastated cities of Van and Arjish, the shortage of supplies and the incoming winter forced Turkey to ask 29 states and Israel for help.
Israel again understood that Turkey would not underscore its willingness to aid in the crisis. By showing goodwill, it might aid in walking back from the dramatic falling out that ensued after the flotilla takeover in May 2010—without having to issue an apology for the deaths of eight Turks and one American.
But one thing is for certain; Israel will continue to send aid until every displaced Turk is living in a Negev solar-powered mobile home, their ambassador can remain expelled until further notice and military ties could be non-existent but they will not apologise.
Same old, same old
Why? That’s the question on everyone’s mind. After all, it’s not like Israel is doing a good job at looking for other allies in the region. The diplomatic prognosis in the region is grim for Israel and yet it seems that the only thing they can give up is a couple of misdemeanour felons and some blankets.
Perhaps, it has to do with the archaic notion that by saying yes to one party it will set the precedent for Israel to become the apologists in the Middle East. It also has a lot to do with Israeli opinion polls and with how Israelis identify with what their government needs to be doing. Sadly Israelis are plagued by angst of being hated by the entire world, and that by accepting responsibility or softening their façade they’re maiming their deterrence strategy. (Ironically, many believe this excellent deterrence strategy has actually worked).
Meanwhile time is passing by quickly and Israel’s options are dwindling. In an interview with International Affairs Editor Annette Young (@AnnetteF24), even moderate opposition leader Tzipi Livni criticised Netanyahu’s laissez-faire policies in the region and categorised the country’s increasing isolation as “unfortunate”.
“There is a legitimate campaign to delegitimise Israel and Israel’s right to exist by extremists in the region. But you also have moderates…and we need to rebuild the camp of pragmatics…when we see the Arab Spring, in the region we have to have a different policy”, Livni said.
And she’s right. This trying to pretend like they’re still in control of the game is only hurting Israel as the balance of power in the region continues to shift. It’s time to face a brave new world.