Osama Al-Sharif
Arab News (Opinion)
September 6, 2011 - 12:00am

These are not Israel’s best times. A tussle with Turkey over a commando raid on a flotilla of aid-carrying ships heading to Gaza Strip last year in which nine Turkish citizens were killed, has just turned into a full-fledged diplomatic war.

Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador this week and vowed to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza at the International Court of Justice. Turkey’s main demand, that Israel issues an official apology for the naval attack, has been rejected — again — by Tel Aviv.

Relations between Turkey and Israel, historically close on all levels, have been under strain since Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza in 2008. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of a panel discussion, attended by President Shimon Peres, in Davos few months later in protest. Ankara has been critical of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government and its uncompromising positions on the peace process and the lifting of an economic siege on Gaza.

The Mavi Marmara affair has soured relations between the two and brought about harsh criticisms and warnings from Turkey. President Abdullah Gul said the expulsion of Israeli diplomats would be followed by other measures. The move was taken following the publication of excerpts of the findings of a UN panel, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand, which concluded that the blockade was in fact legal, and that it was not causing a humanitarian crisis in the Strip. It criticized Israel for the way it handled the raid on Mavi Marmara, while acknowledging that soldiers were acting in self-defense! The full report was later released to the media. Its conclusions were condemned by the Arab League, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), who described it as biased.

As the legal battle flares up, Israel warned Sunday that a planned visit by Erdogan to Gaza Strip next week, via Egypt, would be a “diplomatic mistake.” It is clear that such a visit would cause further damage to strained relations between the two countries.

The demise of special relations with Turkey is a big blow for Israel, especially as Ankara’s regional role grows in influence. Perhaps the biggest loss would be felt in Israel’s military, not to mention trade, circles now that Turkey has suspended all cooperation agreements. Even if Israel backs down and offers a kind of apology, which seems unlikely under the current government, it is doubtful that both countries will ever restore close strategic cooperation.

The latest deterioration in relations with Turkey comes in the wake of a public backlash in Egypt against Israel following the gunning down of five Egyptian soldiers last month on the borders with Sinai. Thousands of Egyptians besieged the Israeli Embassy in the heart of Cairo calling on the government to expel the ambassador and annul the Camp David peace treaty. One protester was able to bring down the Israeli flag amid the cheering of his compatriots.

It was a sign of things to come. The popular revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak in January was bound to affect the once close relations between Israel and the Egyptian regime. It had already ended Hamas’ political isolation while the ruling military council in Cairo was quick to reopen the Rafah border crossing. The future of relations with Israel will feature in the upcoming legislative and presidential elections in Egypt and many believe that the era of close cooperation between the two countries has come to an end.

Israel’s diplomatic nightmare will reach record highs later this month when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to ask the UN’s secretary-general to officially submit Palestine’s application for full membership to the international organization as an independent state along the 1967 borders. Israeli warnings and threats have failed to dissuade the Palestinians and most observers believe the application will receive the needed majority to pass in the General Assembly. Israel will find itself alone, along with the United States which will almost certainly use its veto power in the Security Council.

The political damage for Israel will be huge. Not only that will mean the end of the peace process, and America’s sponsorship of it, but it will underline international support for Palestinian rights. It will bring Israel face-to-face with the international organization, an arena it has always hated and tried to avoid.

Israel’s reaction to the Palestinian move will not improve its bargaining position. By denying financial aid to the PNA, both Washington and Tel Aviv will ensure its fall. This will put responsibility for running the civil affairs of the occupied territories back to the Israelis; a job they had gladly forsaken almost 20 years ago. The prospect of a third intifada flaring up in the aftermath of the historic UN vote is already troubling Israeli generals and politicians.

As if all these developments are not enough to keep Netanyahu awake at night his government is facing unprecedented public protests over skyrocketing living and housing costs. Last Saturday over 450,000 citizens marched all over the country in the largest demonstration in Israel’s history demanding social justice. The protests have been going on for weeks now, inspired by the Arab Spring, and while demonstrators have not dealt with the issue of occupation, there are those in Israel who believe that it is a matter of time before the exuberant cost of maintaining settlers and settlements will be raised.

Israel is not immune to global and regional crises and in this fast-changing landscape it will have to review its position on many issues or face dire consequences.

— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017