Faisal Al Yafai
The National (Opinion)
September 13, 2011 - 12:00am

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped off the plane last night in Cairo, the Turkish prime minister stepped into a new political world. This is the first visit of a Turkish leader to Cairo in 15 years and, coming after Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara, is the first time in three decades Israel finds itself without an embassy in the Arab world's largest country.

Barely nine months after the Arab Spring began, the region's old certainties are being swept away.

For some time now, Israel has been speaking dramatically about a "diplomatic tsunami" expected to follow Palestinians' call for recognition at the United Nations this month, which will expose the extent of opposition among the world's nations towards its continuing occupation.

Israel is right: there is a political tsunami coming. But its source was unpredictable just months ago. It has come from the wave of Arab revolutions that have swept the region, leading to a change in the political contract by which the Arab world has been kept stable.

Yet Israel cannot grasp this fact and still believes business as usual can continue. Three recent events herald this new reality.

The first was the killing of five Egyptian border guards by the Israeli army last month, whilst searching for Palestinian militants. In response, Egypt dismissed the Israeli ambassador, with Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief who may be a candidate for the presidency, warning: "Israel must understand that the days our sons were killed without a strong and appropriate response are gone and will not come back." Israel hurriedly issued a statement of regret.

The next came with a UN report into the long-running dispute between Turkey and Israel over the deaths of eight Turkish and one American citizen on a flotilla aid ship to Gaza last year. Despite diplomatic pressure - even from the United States - Israel has refused to apologise for the killings, even after the UN report called the force used "excessive and unreasonable".

In response, Turkey downgraded diplomatic and military ties.

The third is still on-going. After clashes around the Israeli embassy in Cairo, a small group of Egyptians broke down the security wall to the embassy, trapping Israeli diplomats inside until Egyptian commandos rescued them. Israel then removed the majority of its diplomats from Cairo.

At the root of this is a change in the political contract governing the region.

The Arab revolutions upended the political contract between ruler and ruled in the Arab republics, as Bashar Al Assad in Syria and Libya's Col Muammar Qaddafi are now discovering. No longer could the rulers of these republics dispense carrots of political and economic favours (and wield the stick of security) in order to keep the acquiescence of their populations. After the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt were toppled, the political contract changed and populations sensed they had the upper hand against security regimes that previously appeared secure.

The Arab uprisings have also changed the political contract by which the region has been kept stable. Egyptian and Syrian leaders have long contained the popular feeling among their publics against the Israeli occupation. Hosni Mubarak went further, ensuring the border to Gaza was kept sealed, thus maintaining Israel's siege.

In Syria, Mr Al Assad kept his soldiers from escalating the conflict over Israel's four-decade-long occupation of the Golan Heights. (Syrians currently note, with wry humour, that the regime's soldiers are being used to attack citizens in a way they have never been used to defend the Golan.) Thus even as Palestine was burning, the region's leaders maintained a cold peace with Israel.

Now that contract has changed, consigned to history as surely as the rule of Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

At the height of the embassy crisis, Israel's prime minister called the US president, Barack Obama, for help. That speaks volumes for Israel's isolation from the region. Instead of calling Egyptian, Jordanian or Turkish politicians - in countries with which Israel has had decades to forge links - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opted to call an ally half a world away.

This disconnect has been especially evident during the Arab Spring, with Israeli leaders uncertain how to react.

Younger Israelis do seem to get it. Galvanised by the Arab Spring, Israelis took to the streets in tens of thousands, calling for better social conditions for themselves. The Hebrew and Arabic slogans they used were explicitly modelled on the slogan that has been sweeping the Arab world: "The people demand social justice." Even calls for the prime minster's resignation were framed in a similar way: "Mubarak, Assad, Bibi Netanyahu!" young Israelis chanted.

That is a positive move, as it suggests a younger generation which could integrate with the wider sentiment in the region. But Israel's leadership remains intransigent. Having assembled a right-wing coalition, Mr Netanyahu is rehashing the same old lines of argument, speaking to an increasingly narrow domestic audience.

Israelis were right that this autumn would bring a "diplomatic tsunami" - they just didn't realise that its cause would not be Palestinian statehood but the wave of Arab revolutions. Israel's own people are pushing its politicians to adapt to this new world, or they may find the tsunami of people power that swept away the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt will also sweep them from power.


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