Beyond Cairo, Israel Sensing a Wider Siegehttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/world/middleeast/11israel.html?_r=1&hp
JERUSALEM — With its Cairo embassy ransacked, its ambassador to Turkey expelled and the Palestinians seeking statehood recognition at the United Nations, Israel found itself on Saturday increasingly isolated and grappling with a radically transformed Middle East where it believes its options are limited and poor.
The diplomatic crisis, in which winds unleashed by the Arab Spring are now casting a chill over the region, was crystallized by the scene of Israeli military jets sweeping into Cairo at dawn on Saturday to evacuate diplomats after the Israeli Embassy had been besieged by thousands of protesters.
It was an image that reminded some Israelis of Iran in 1979, when Israel evacuated its embassy in Tehran after the revolution there replaced an ally with an implacable foe.
“Seven months after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Egyptian protesters tore to shreds the Israeli flag, a symbol of peace between Egypt and its eastern neighbor, after 31 years,” Aluf Benn, the editor in chief of the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote Saturday. “It seems that the flag will not return to the flagstaff anytime soon.”
Egypt and Israel both issued statements on Saturday reaffirming their commitments to their peace treaty, but in a televised address on Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel warned that Egypt “cannot ignore the heavy damage done to the fabric of peace.”
Facing crises in relations with Egypt and Turkey, its two most important regional allies, Israel turned to the United States. Throughout the night on Friday, desperate Israeli officials called their American counterparts seeking help to pressure the Egyptians to protect the embassy.
President Obama “expressed his great concern” in a telephone call with Mr. Netanyahu, the White House said in a statement, and he called on Egypt “to honor its international obligations to safeguard the security of the Israeli Embassy.”
Washington — for whom Israel, Turkey and Egypt are all critical allies — has watched tensions along the eastern Mediterranean with growing unease and increasing alarm. And though the diplomatic breaches were not entirely unexpected, they prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity in Washington.
The mayhem in Cairo also exacted consequences for Egypt, raising questions about whether its military-led transitional government would be able to maintain law and order and meet its international obligations. The failure to prevent an invasion of a foreign embassy raised security concerns at other embassies as well.
The Egyptian government responded to those questions Saturday night, pledging a new crackdown on disruptive protests and reactivating the emergency law allowing indefinite detentions without trial, one of the most reviled measures enacted under former President Hosni Mubarak.
Since the start of the Arab uprisings, internal critics and foreign friends, including the United States, have urged Israel to take bold conciliatory steps toward the Palestinians, and after confrontations in which Israeli forces killed Egyptian and Turkish citizens, to reach accommodations with both countries.
Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador a week ago over Israel’s refusal to apologize for a deadly raid last year on a Turkish ship bound for Gaza in which nine Turks were killed. The storming of the embassy in Cairo on Saturday was precipitated by the killing of three Egyptian soldiers along the border by Israeli military forces pursuing terrorism suspects.
Israel has expressed regret for the deaths in both cases, but has not apologized for actions that it considers defensive.
The overriding assessment of the government of Mr. Netanyahu is that such steps will only make matters worse because what is shaking the region is not about Israel, even if Israel is increasingly its target, and Israel can do almost nothing to affect it.
“Egypt is not going toward democracy but toward Islamicization,” said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo who reflected the government’s view. “It is the same in Turkey and in Gaza. It is just like what happened in Iran in 1979.”
A senior official said Israel had few options other than to pursue what he called a “porcupine policy” to defend itself against aggression. Another official, asked about Turkey, said, “There is little that we can do.”
Critics of the government take a very different view.
Mr. Benn, the Haaretz editor, acknowledged that Mr. Netanyahu could not be faulted for the events in Egypt, the rise of an Islamic-inspired party in Turkey or Iran’s nuclear program. But echoing criticism by the Obama administration, he said that Mr. Netanyahu “has not done a thing to mitigate the fallout from the aforementioned developments.”
Daniel Ben-Simon, a member of Parliament from the left-leaning Labor Party, said the Netanyahu government was on a path “not just to diplomatic isolation but to actually putting Israelis in danger,” he said. “It all comes down to his obsession against a Palestinian state, his total paralysis toward the Palestinian issue. We are facing an international tide at the United Nations. If he joined the vote for a Palestinian state instead of fighting it, that would be the best thing he could do for us in the Arab world.”
The Palestinians have given up on talks with Israel, and within the next two weeks they plan to ask the United Nations to grant them membership and statehood recognition within the 1967 lines, including East Jerusalem as a capital.
Potential side effects of the diplomatic disputes have already emerged.
The growing hostility from Egypt could require a radical rethinking of Israel’s defense doctrine which, for the past three decades, counted on peace on its southern border. As chaos in the Sinai has increased and anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt has grown, military strategists here are examining how to beef up protection of the south, including by the building of an anti-infiltration wall in the Sinai.
A threat by Turkey last week to challenge Israel’s plans for gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean could threaten Israel’s agreement with Cyprus on gas drilling and could worsen tensions with Lebanon on drilling rights.
Initial Israeli fears about the Arab Spring uprisings have begun to materialize in concrete ways. When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt at the start of the year, little attention was directed toward Israel because so much focus was on throwing off dictatorial rule and creating a new political order.
Traditionally, many Arab leaders have used Israel as a convenient scapegoat, turning public wrath against it and blaming it for their problems. The faint hope here was that a freer Middle East might move away from such anti-Israel hostility because the overthrow of dictators would open up debate.
But as the months of Arab Spring have turned autumnal, Israel has increasingly become a target of public outrage. Some here say Israel is again being made a scapegoat, this time for unfulfilled revolutionary promises.
But there is another interpretation, and it is the predominant one abroad — Muslims, Arabs and indeed many around the globe believe Israel is unjustly occupying Palestinian territories, and they are furious at Israel for it. And although some Israelis pointed fingers at Islamicization as the cause of the violence, Egyptians noted Saturday that Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, distanced themselves from Friday’s protests and did not attend, while legions of secular-minded soccer fans were at the forefront of the embassy attacks.
“The world is tired of this conflict and angry at us because we are viewed as conquerors, ruling over another people,” said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a Labor Party member of Parliament and a former defense minister. “If I were Bibi Netanyahu, I would recognize a Palestinian state. We would then negotiate borders and security. Instead nothing is happening. We are left with one ally, America, and that relationship is strained, too.”