Israel faces 'regional tsunami' set off by Arab Spring

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, set to speak Friday at the United Nations, faces a much changed region.

Story highlights

  • Palestinian Authority's U.N. statehood bid dramatically raising stakes, officials say
  • Over the past year, Israel has witnessed a "tsunami" of change in the region
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set to address the U.N. General Assembly

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets ready to address the U.N. General Assembly on Friday, he will look out at some not-so-familiar faces. The neighborhood has changed since last year's global gathering, and Israel faces multiple challenges as a consequence of the unfinished business known as the Arab Spring.

Israel's closest partner in the Arab world, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is now on trial. The military council that replaced him has distanced itself from Israel and allowed space to popular opposition to the peace treaty between the two countries. While Israel sheds no tears about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's problems, it is apprehensive about what might follow should unrest eventually unseat him. Instability in Syria would inevitably spill into Lebanon, where Hezbollah has tens of thousands of missiles aimed at Israel.

A once close relationship with Turkey is in tatters. And now the Palestinian Authority is dramatically raising the stakes over stalled negotiations on a peace settlement by looking to the United Nations to win statehood.

Six months ago, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned a diplomatic tsunami was headed in Israel's direction. He told the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv that the Palestinian plan for recognition was an attempt to push Israel into the same corner that apartheid South Africa once occupied.

Barak also said that the Israeli government must come up with its own diplomatic initiative to counter such a move -- and be ready to tackle core issues, including security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. In oblique criticism of his own government, he said that "for the last two years we haven't tried to put the core issues on the table." But there has been no progress on any of them, nor indeed any negotiations, since Barak made that speech.

In an interview with CNN last month, Barak suggested the tsunami had become much more ominous for Israel. "Egypt is under major transition. The Saudis are kind of occupied -- I don't know how to call it -- in their place. Iran is hostile and a major threat to the whole stability, and we don't have to add Turkey into this array of uneasy choices," he said.

But as Barak acknowledges, Turkey is now firmly added to that array, and given its growing influence and economic clout in the region, that's an unwelcome development for Israel. Not so long ago, the two countries were staging joint military maneuvers and had a fast-developing diplomatic and economic relationship.

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Then came the incident when Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, a ship chartered by a Turkish nongovernmental organization taking supplies to Gaza, after repeated warnings it would not be allowed to complete its journey. Nine Turkish activists on board were killed. Turkey was furious; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused its demand for an apology for "operational mistakes" -- a formula worked out by months of U.S.-led diplomacy. Since then, diplomats have been expelled, angry words exchanged between Israel and Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Israel as "the West's spoiled child." One of Israel's main partners in the Muslim world is no longer answering the phone.

This week Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu laid the blame exclusively at Israel's door while waxing lyrical about Ankara's burgeoning relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. "Nobody can blame Turkey or any other country in the region for its isolation," he told The New York Times.

Israel's relationship with Egypt, one of two Arab countries with which it has a peace treaty, is also less amicable. The military council now preparing the country for elections has allowed popular antipathy toward Israel to express itself, and according to a poll this year carried out by the Pew Research Center, Egyptians wanted the peace treaty annulled by a margin of 54% to 36%. Even Egypt's caretaker prime minister has suggested the treaty is at risk. Speaking to a Turkish television network, Essam Sharaf said: "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 ... and we could make a change if needed."

Border security has deteriorated, with Egyptian military officials acknowledging to CNN that al Qaeda and Salafist terror groups have established a presence in the Sinai desert. In August, a jihadist group based in Gaza used Egyptian territory to attack Israeli civilian targets in Negev -- killing eight civilians. Israeli troops mistakenly killed five Egyptian border guards while in pursuit of the terror cell. Days later, angry protesters overran the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. The entire staff was hastily withdrawn after U.S. President Barack Obama personally intervened with the Egyptians to secure their safe passage. It was a sequence of events that rapidly plunged relations between the Israeli and Egyptian governments into crisis.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which wants the peace treaty with Israel torn up, is gaining strength in Egypt. In an August speech in Cairo's Tahrir Square, preacher Safwat Hegazi of the Brotherhood proclaimed: "We will show them anger."

Egypt's ruling military council does not share Mubarak's visceral animosity toward Iran, and it allowed two Iranian navy vessels to transit the Suez Canal.

Israel's relations with Jordan, where nearly half the population is Palestinian, have also deteriorated. On Wednesday, King Abdullah of Jordan told the U.N. General Assembly that "frustrations are at a peak. Even as we speak Israeli settlement activity is ongoing." The king told The Wall Street Journal this week there was increasing frustration among Jordanians because Israelis have been "sticking their heads in the sand and pretending there isn't a problem."

Jordan's alienation does worry some Israelis. Amos Gilad, director of policy and political-military affairs at Israel's Defense Ministry, said peace with Jordan must be preserved. "(It) gives Israel strategic depth, and peace with them is so valuable it's out of the imagination to describe living without it," he told CNN. Earlier this month, Israel called home staff from its embassy in Amman for a day -- fearing that a planned anti-Israel protest could turn violent. On that day, Israel suddenly had no envoy in Cairo, Ankara or Amman. (The envoy to Jordan has since returned to his post.)

The Israeli government is also concerned the unrest in Syria may ultimately threaten that country's integrity -- leading to sectarian conflict among Sunnis, Alawites and Kurds. Israel would of course welcome problems for Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which receive support from Damascus. But the al-Assad dynasty has at least guaranteed a stable border for nearly 40 years (despite saber-rattling rhetoric). It is "the devil you know." The prospect of Islamists gaining greater influence in Syria or a sectarian meltdown are not better alternatives, Israeli officials said.

In the face of all these negative -- or at least unsettling -- developments, critics of Netanyahu say that his policy lacks urgency and dynamism. Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent of the left-leaning daily Haaretz, told CNN: "Right now the only strategy is no strategy. ... The Israeli answer will be no: no to the Security Council, no to the General Assembly, and no to any resolution that will include any kind of statement that will include Palestinian statehood."

While insisting he is ready for direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu said this week it had "consistently evaded peace negotiations with Israel. When the Palestinian Authority will abandon these futile and unilateral measures at the U.N., it will find Israel to be a genuine partner for direct peace negotiations."

Barak, speaking this week on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight," had a subtly different spin. "It's up to us and mainly to our counterpart, the Palestinian leadership, Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) and (Salam) Fayyad (the Palestinian prime minister) and others, to shoulder the burden of leadership and start to move."

For now, ordinary Israelis are not feeling the consequences of this fast changing environment. The Israeli Defense Ministry's Gilad said that despite the diplomatic and political uncertainty Israel was "living in the best security conditions ever," noting that the number of terror attacks was low -- and that tensions notwithstanding the peace with Egypt "is still stable."

Barak said it's not the moment to be complacent. "You cannot just close your eyes, say the Lord is with us, and you cannot say, 'OK, nothing could be done,' " he told Piers Morgan.

"We have to be active. We shouldn't be paralyzed like a rabbit under the lights."

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