Israel has always bet its survival on a few key friendships amid a world of enemies. But lately even its oldest alliances are looking frayed.
An Egyptian mob stormed Israel’s Embassy in Cairo on Friday night, forcing the ambassador to flee a country that had reached a landmark peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Turkey is threatening to dispatch warships off Israel’s Mediterranean coast in the latest sign of deteriorating ties with the former Muslim ally.
Even American patience may be running thin, as seen in a comment leaked last week by former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an “ungrateful ally” whose policies are worsening Israel’s international isolation.
Yet rather than spur anxiety or bolster public calls for Israel to change course, the external pressure appears to be only hardening many Israelis’ resolve to do what they say they’ve always done: Go it alone.
“I’m not making light of the situation,” said computer technician Dan Levine, sipping coffee at a cafe west of Jerusalem. “But we’ve been through this movie before and we’ll probably go through it again. Israel’s top priority is securing its interests, even if it makes other countries unhappy with us.”
Despite critics’ warnings that Israel is underestimating the growing threat created by the so-called Arab Spring, Netanyahu has made it clear that he too believes the country should stay the course in the face of growing regional uncertainty, rather than bend to outside pressure.
“In our region, peace is not made with the weak and obsequious,” he said last week. “Peace is made with a strong and proud Israel.”
He has resisted U.S. and European pressure to make concessions that might draw Palestinians back to the negotiating table or persuade them to abandon a plan to seek U.N. membership this month. According to the Israeli group Peace Now, settlement construction in the West Bank over the last year grew twice as fast as in Israel overall.
And although Netanyahu has been careful not to alienate the interim government of Egypt, the prime minister has steadfastly refused to apologize to Turkey over the May 2010 killings of nine Turkish activists who were participating in an attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Some in Netanyahu’s coalition are even calling for retaliatory moves against Ankara, such as funding Kurdish rebels or blocking Turkey’s bid for the 2020 Olympics.
For many Israelis, a sense of international isolation and even persecution is nothing new. In fact, many see it as embedded in the national identity, starting with the Holocaust and flaring most recently with the Goldstone Report, which infuriated Israelis with its allegations that Israel committed war crimes during the Gaza military offensive of 2009.
“Israelis maintain a general perception that the world is hostile towards them anyway and don’t believe the world would embrace them if they only changed their ways,” said pollster Tamar Hermann, a sociology professor at Israel’s Open University. A July poll found that only one in 10 Israelis thinks improving their international standing is the nation’s top concern.
Critics, however, say that such sentiments may backfire on Israel.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said Netanyahu’s inaction in the face of the regional unrest is leading Israel into an “abyss.” Haaretz newspaper columnist Zvi Barel likened Israel to a straying ship surrounded by icebergs “whose captains are confident of their ability to thread their way through, until it can no longer move.”
Rather than dig into old positions, some say, Israel should adopt a more conciliatory approach to the Palestinian conflict in an attempt to forge better alliances with its Arab neighbors, including Egypt, which saw three people killed and more than 1,000 injured in clashes that followed the attack on the Israeli Embassy.
Instead, Israel is developing a “siege mentality” that is crippling its ability to respond, said Shlomo Brom, a Mideast analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“A sense of fatalism has developed,” Brom said. “Everything is always someone else’s fault. The U.S. policy is Obama’s fault. The fallout with Turkey is because [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is an Islamist. Problems with Egypt are because of the Muslim Brotherhood.... It’s a mentality that Israel is subject to greater powers and therefore it is responsible for nothing.”
He said those who throw up their hands and say Israel has always been isolated internationally are forgetting the 1990s, when Israel’s participation in the Oslo peace accords brought new levels of international acceptance.
The recent debate in Israel over Turkey illustrated the mood here. After Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and cut off military ties this month over Netanyahu’s refusal to apologize over last year’s flotilla incident, Netanyahu aides and many pundits insisted that an apology would not have mattered anyway because Turkey, they said, was determined to distance itself from Israel.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned against that growing sense of fatalism. “We are starting to get dragged onto a course of self-fulfilling prophesies,” he said during an interview on Israel Radio.
Others say Israel’s isolation is being overblown by left-leaning government critics who are trying to use the regional instability as an excuse to pressure Netanyahu’s government into making concessions to Palestinians.
“Those who say Israel is isolated are greatly exaggerating the situation,” said professor Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He said Israel is in a stronger position today than it was a year ago.
“Our rivals in the Arab world are busy with domestic problems and are less capable of mobilizing force against us,” he said. “We should sit and weather the crisis. Sometimes doing nothing is the best strategy.”
The Israeli public, he said, is behind the government’s approach.
“Israelis are conditioned to being isolated,” he said. “So what if the world thinks we’re not OK? This has been our lot for 2,000 years.”
Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.