Hugh Naylor
The National (Opinion)
December 7, 2011 - 1:00am

The public scolding of Israel by a top US defence official last week represented more than just frustration with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for its refusal to resume peace talks with the Palestinians.

Leon Panetta's demand that Israel "get to the damn" negotiating table, made during a speech at a Washington think tank on Friday, was the most overt sign yet of the Obama administration's impatience with what it views as Israel's refusal to adapt to the Middle East's shifting political landscape.

Such public admonishment of an important US ally with a large domestic constituency is rare enough, of course; the fact that it occurred on the eve of a presidential election year in the United States, when Jewish votes and donations to political parties by Jewish donors are up for grabs, was extraordinary.

Israeli officials reacted predictably, blaming the Palestinians and other Arabs for the strains in its foreign alliances. Mark Regev, Mr Netanyahu's spokesman, pointed the finger at the Palestinians, calling on them to "renounce their attitude of rejection".

By reciting the usual talking points, however, Israel unwittingly lent credence to the US defence secretary's remarks at the Brookings Institution by showing it has a tin ear to the region's changing political tone.

This year's upheavals in the Arab world and the calls for more popularly based government have been profoundly unsettling for Israel. It had boasted that it was the region's only democracy. Now it sits in fearful isolation as the demand for it spreads.

Successive Israeli governments relied on Egypt and other authoritarian governments in the region. These regimes condemned Israel publicly but privately tolerated its excesses and intransigence, mostly to curry favour with Washington. That cushion has eroded.

Now, even Cairo, Israel's erstwhile ally, is cause for concern. Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, on Saturday described the latest election results in Egypt as "very, very worrisome". While expressing hope that the results could ultimately be "positive", Mr Barak painted them as "problematic" for Israel.

In any other year, Israel's refusal to halt construction of Jewish settlements and its failure to mend relations with Turkey might not be quite as surprising. At the end of 2011, though, they point to a political establishment that is sharply out of step with the times.

Of course, no Israeli government could be expected to embrace this year's upheaval in the Arab world unqualifiedly. It must heed any loosed forces that call for its extinction, and like any government it prizes stability above almost all else. Still, its political reflexes appear clumsier than ever. It digs in - literally. Mr Netanyahu's government is speeding up construction on a 266-kilometre, US$360 million (Dh1.3bn) fence on its border with Egypt, along with talk of increasing defence spending.

Its diplomats revert to old melodies. "The Arab world is still in love with zealous words and mindless attacks: impassioned calls, baseless threats, and the flexing of muscles," Nizer Amer, an Israeli diplomat based in Turkey, wrote on Saturday in the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronot.

It is this obduracy that has placed Mr Panetta and other US officials in a quandary. They want to play a role in the sea changes occurring in the Arab world but view Israel as a drawback in that effort, says James Zogby, a prominent Arab American writer and regular columnist for The National.

Washington's "unshakeable bond" with Israel has, in effect, taken the Obama administration "out of the game" and reduced "its ability to play a meaningful regional role", said Mr Zogby, writing in the Huffington Post on Saturday.


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