The Washington Post
September 7, 2011 - 12:00am

Rising tensions with some of its closest and most important allies have left Israel increasingly isolated ahead of a momentous vote on Palestinian independence at the United Nations.

Troubles with Turkey, Egypt and even the U.S. are adding to Israel’s headaches ahead of the vote, which is shaping up to be a global expression of discontent against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Palestinians plan to ask the United Nations this month to recognize their independence in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — probably by embracing them as a “nonmember observer state.” The measure is expected to pass overwhelmingly in the U.N. General Assembly.

The assembly’s decisions are not legally binding, so the vote will be largely symbolic. But the Palestinians hope the measure will increase the already considerable pressure on Israel to withdraw from occupied territories, and add leverage should peace talks resume. The Palestinians refuse to negotiate while Israel continues to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian government in the West Bank, said Israeli isolation is playing right into Palestinian hands. “We are seeing that result in increased support for us in the United Nations,” he said.

On Wednesday, China announced it would support the Palestinian bid. And a French Mideast envoy, Valerie Hoffenberg, said she had been fired after publicly arguing against the Palestinian initiative. France has not publicly said how it will vote, but her comments signaled that the government favors the Palestinians.

The vote is seen by many not only as a message of sympathy with the Palestinians, but also a barometer of discontent with Israel’s settlement policies. Some 500,000 Israelis now live in territories claimed by the Palestinians.

“There’s no question that had Israel been seen as a country doing its utmost to promote peace, no such vote would be taking place,” said Yossi Beilin, Israel’s former deputy foreign minister.

Beilin cited Netanyahu’s refusal to extend a freeze on new settlement construction a year ago as the “mother of all sins” that put him at odds with the international community. The decision, made over the very public objections of President Barack Obama, caused a brief round of peace talks to collapse.

Since then, relations with Obama have been further strained. In May, Netanyahu paid a tense visit to Washington, where he objected before cameras to Obama’s call that the 1967 boundaries be the basis of a future agreement with the Palestinians. American officials privately express deep frustration with Netanyahu.

Even so, Washington has been trying to pressure the Palestinians to give up the U.N. bid, saying peace can only be achieved through negotiations.

Closer to home, Israel has watched Egypt, perhaps its most critical regional ally, cool relations since the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February. Mubarak was seen by many of his people as too sympathetic to Israel, negotiating an unpopular deal to supply it with natural gas, for example.

Israel-Egypt relations took a hit last month when five Egyptian police were killed during a firefight between Israeli forces and fleeing militants. Egypt was outraged, and mass demonstrations against Israel erupted in Cairo. Israel later apologized. But there have been calls in Egypt to cancel the 30-year-old peace agreement with Israel — which is an absolutely critical element of Israel’s regional strategy.

Another key regional ally, Turkey, has greatly curbed diplomatic and trade ties with Israel following Israel’s deadly raid on a protest flotilla that tried to breach the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip last year. Nine Turks, one of them an American citizen, were killed in clashes with Israeli naval commandos.

Israeli officials have tried to play down the tensions, saying that Israel has long faced hostility on the diplomatic stage. They also say that Israel has enjoyed some key victories recently, such as last week’s U.N. report on the flotilla incident that defended its blockade of Gaza. Yet one official acknowledged the “new challenges” are a source of concern. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive internal discussions.

Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. who is close to Netanyahu, said it is “a mistake to judge Israel’s international standing by recent events.”

He said Turkey’s animosity toward Israel is part of a broader shift by the country’s Islamist government that “is troubling not just for the Jewish state but for many of Turkey’s neighbors.”

And any anti-Israel resolution at the U.N. passes automatically, thanks to the dominance by developing nations that are sympathetic to the Palestinians, he said. “It’s conventional wisdom that if there was a resolution whose first clause was anti-Israel and whose second clause was that the earth was flat, it would pass,” Gold said.

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, however, accused Netanyahu of weakening the nation’s interests. “Israel’s isolation is affecting its security and its economy,” she told a conference Wednesday.


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