States of flux
With Turkey staking a claim for regional hegemony, Egypt's leaders facing questions about their legitimacy and the upcoming UN vote on Palestine - it's time for Israel to act wisely.
The series of developments Israel has faced or is currently marching toward is not a tsunami. This is not a natural disaster, but rather the result of political processes and events, some of which are interrelated and some of which are disconnected; some of which Israel has been involved in, and others over which it has no control. Even if most of these occurrences are inconvenient as far as Israel is concerned, it still retains a certain degree of freedom of action, which it can exercise if it is savvy enough to make decisions - some of them quite difficult.
But with respect to certain matters, the present government sometimes takes the wrong line, stemming from wrong assessments as well as ideological failings, when it clearly sacrifices vital Israeli interests on the altar of an ideology that guides its leaders. Such is the case with regard to Turkey, Egypt and what may happen at the United Nations on the Palestinian issue.
On the Turkish issue, a distinction must be made between isolated incidents and long-term diplomatic developments. It is clear that in the matter of the Gaza flotilla, Israel failed twice: first, in how it handled the flotilla itself; and second, in its unwillingness to adopt the conclusions of the Palmer committee and express readiness to pay compensation to the families of the Turkish citizens who were killed. The reasons that kept the government from making the right decisions - and which were couched in terms of "national honor" - come from the realms of a rhetoric that is tied to a mentality that has nothing to do with actual national interests. Likewise, the talk about aiding the Kurdish terrorists of the PKK may be appropriate for a Friday-morning discussion among a few locals in Rishon Letzion, but not when it comes to a realistic and responsible foreign policy.
Nevertheless, it is a mistake to think that even had Israel selected the right policy, it would have been possible to restore our relations with Turkey to what they were in the past. Turkey's present government is guided not only by its Muslim background, which is undoubtedly substantial and important, but also by a number of comprehensive strategic perceptions, for which an incident like the Gaza flotilla - despite its prominence in the media - is utterly marginal.
The first principle of this strategy, formulated by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is that Turkey must reach a state of "zero conflicts" with its neighbors. This line guided the attempts to reconcile with Armenia, the openness toward Iran and the thaw in relations with Syria. Particularly concerning relations with Iran and Syria, the upshot of this policy was a retreat from the close alliance with Israel: This was not a case of anti-Israeli thinking, but rather a comprehensive mind-set, which actually prompted Turkey to try to mediate between Syria and Israel to reduce tension in the region.
There is considerable strategic logic to this policy, but it has not been a great success: For various complicated reasons, the reconciliation with Armenia did not work out; the mediation attempt between Syria and Israel failed; and lastly, Turkey comes across in a most unflattering light as its friend, Syrian President Bashar Assad, massacres his own people. The failure of the policy of openness toward Syria may also explain, at least partially, the radicalization in Turkey's positions toward Israel. Whatever the source of the Turkish thinking, this part of it is hardly a success story.
The second part of the Turkish strategy is more complex. It has its origins in the crude rejection of the country's efforts to enter the European Union - precisely after the Erdogan government took several significant steps to meet European requirements: banning the death penalty, reforming the judicial system, placing the military under civilian supervision. When the door to Europe turned out to be closed, Ankara made a decision to turn eastward and solidify its position as a regional power.
In the current Turkish mind-set, one can see neo-Ottomanism or a desire for regional hegemony. Either way, the conclusion is clear: Ankara has no intention of rebuilding the empire. Turkey's rulers are making do with anchoring its status as a leading regional power, with which countries in the region must align - or at least, not clash.
Obviously such a policy takes a dim view of the fact that Israel is ignoring Turkey's attitude toward the Palestinian issue. On the other hand, under this policy Turkey welcomes what is happening in the Arab world, because even if revolutions in the Middle East do not bring to power democratic regimes, the authorities in the Arab states are being weakened.
A weak Egypt, which is being ruled by a hesitant military junta of dubious legitimacy, is preferable from Ankara's standpoint to a strong Egypt with Hosni Mubarak at the helm. Erdogan's visit to Egypt this week is one result of its weakening as a regional power following the events of Tahrir Square. It is no accident that the response of the current rulers in Cairo toward this visit was problematic: The idea of Turkish hegemony in the region doesn't seem to be getting an enthusiastic reception in Egypt.
Israel has almost no control over these developments. The only piece of advice one can offer its leaders in this regard is reminiscent of the Hippocratic oath: Above all, do no harm. So far, we have done ourselves quite a bit of harm - especially by employing provocative rhetoric. While in the past few days Israel's foreign minister has spoken with restraint, the damage was already done.
Last weekend's events surrounding the Israeli Embassy in Cairo are of course part of a historic saga of opposition to the peace treaty with Israel among broad segments of Egyptian society. The 2008 Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel's military - and brutal - force was brought for the first time into every Arab home via television, only strengthened these sentiments. The recent killing of the Egyptian border guards following the terror attack near Eilat added fuel to the fire.
But the reason for the escalation in Egypt - with the violent breaching of the embassy building being the lowest point to date - is the weakness of the current regime, which lacks basic legitimacy and has hesitated to confront the street. The paradox, that in the name of democracy Tahrir Square brought to power - or rather, left in power - people who had served Mubarak for decades, has not gone unnoticed by the generals, nor by the masses.
The violent siege on the embassy not only harmed Israeli-Egyptian relations, it also caused much greater damage to the status of the current authority in Egypt. A governing body - let alone a military one - that cannot control the streets of its capital and protect foreign embassies forfeits its legitimacy not only domestically, but also internationally. It was the first test of strength for the supreme military council - and it flunked. Whatever happens in the future to Israeli-Egyptian relations will largely be a function of the military junta's capacity for effective control.
This incident also lessened the chance of Egyptian elections in the near future. It is a cruel fact: Because Israel is interested in peace with Egypt, it is interested in seeing a stable regime there. Yesterday the regime was in the hands of Hosni Mubarak, today the military junta is in charge and tomorrow, who knows? Chaos is the enemy of peace - and the enemy of the Egyptian people.
Democratic bombast may be good for a political theory seminar, but not for the cruel reality of a complex and convoluted country like Egypt. It seems that even the Muslim Brotherhood - not the Salafist extremists - understand this.
In this matter Israel behaved wisely and cautiously - if we overlook Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's overheated statement after the bloody encounter on the Egyptian border near Eilat, which was aimed more at the Likud branch in Petah Tikva than at Israel's strategic interests. It is a good thing matters did not repeat themselves: that Israel expressed regret (through the defense minister and the president ) for the deaths of the Egyptian border guards, and that Netanyahu thanked Egypt for rescuing the besieged security personnel in an impressive commando raid. Let us hope that Israel will continue in this restrained vein.
Should an effort be made to return the entire embassy staff to Cairo? Under the present conditions I'm not sure. Maybe the return of diplomats should be made conditional upon developments in Egypt, thereby putting this southern neighbor to a certain test. Israel must tread carefully, gently, but with determination.
Not too late for talks
The final issue is the Palestinians' application to the United Nations for recognition of their country. We intimidated ourselves so much with the disastrous consequences of this move that it seems to have been blown out of all proportion. The Netanyahu government bears responsibility in no small degree for matters having come to this. It may not be too late to make an effort to reopen the talks, although ultimately the Palestinians' insistence on setting preconditions is what prevented the resumption of negotiations.
If the UN General Assembly decides to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, the Palestinians will have won an impressive propaganda victory, which would pose no simple challenge to Israel - but a Palestinian state will not arise as a result of it.
The UN resolution of November 29, 1947, with all its importance, and first and foremost the legitimacy it granted to the founding of a Jewish (and Arab ) state in the Land of Israel, did not establish a state. The Jewish state was established by the Jewish community's ability to defend itself. The Palestinian state has not arisen because of the Palestinians' dual failures: In their war against Israel, and their inability to create effective tools to forge a legitimate diplomatic framework that would make it possible for them to build a nation. Instead they were dragged into Jordanian and Egyptian occupation.
The current reality is different, of course, but the only way that Palestinians will be able to attain the independence they deserve is by negotiating with Israel. So long as a right-wing government rules Israel, negotiations will certainly not be simple. But without them, a UN resolution will not have the power to create a state in a place where the minimal conditions for its existence (having effective control on the ground ) are lacking. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the PA does not control Gaza, and no verbal decision in New York is going to change that fact. Verbal decisions that cannot be realized in practice are not a substitute for policy. This is one of the reasons for the hesitation being evinced by the Europeans, with all of their criticism for Israel's policy under Netanyahu's leadership.
The rift between the West Bank and Gaza Strip means that the Palestinians today have no authorized body capable of legitimately expressing their sovereignty. Hence the joke going around in diplomatic circles recently: Maybe the UN shouldn't recognize one Palestinian state, but two - one in the West Bank, the other in the Gaza Strip. It's a lame joke of course, but a verbal resolution at the UN will not manage to bridge the harsh facts, which tell us that the Palestinians are in a situation that resembles a sort of dormant civil war.
All of this may also hold out an opportunity for Israel: If the PA declares statehood and is granted international recognition, it must behave like a state. International law applies to it, and Israel can contend that the Oslo Accords, which were signed by the PLO and later the authority, may no longer be valid. Obviously Israel cannot abrogate the accords, but the sheer declaration of a Palestinian state might call their validity into question.
In short, Israel is clearly in a tough spot, partly of its own making. But between this and the hysterical feelings now teeming in the country, the distance is great. There are tools in Israel's possession which should be employed with an awareness of the complexity involved. This should be done carefully, and most importantly, wisely.