Dual metaphors for Israel’s September condition

Escape from the Cairo embassy, fence along the border with Egypt make one realize: Forces are at work over which Israel has no control.

Cairo embassy violence 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cairo embassy violence 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Though the visit was planned weeks in advance, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s helicoptering down to a site on the Egyptian- Israeli border Tuesday to urge on the speedy completion of the 230 kilometer border fence with Egypt was, if nothing else, highly symbolic.
This was not the prime minister’s first visit to the project; in fact it was his fourth. But if during his past visits to the Egyptian border – such as his second in November 2010 – the talk had been almost exclusively about the need for a fence to stem the tide of illegal Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants over-running Eilat, this week the focus was on the need to keep terrorists from a lawless Sinai from entering the country and ambushing Eilat-bound tourists.
What a difference 10 months and an “Arab Spring” makes.
On a barren, horribly hot patch of land within gunshot range of Israel’s “peace border” with Egypt, Netanyahu – shielded in front by thick bullet-proof glass and from the sides and back by huge semi-trucks set up like wagons protecting a fort – looked out at the five-meter tall metal barrier taking form some 60 kilometers north of Eilat. That barrier, to be augmented by state-of-the-art electronics and a beefed-up IDF presence, seemed an apt metaphor for the state of the country as it gears up for next Friday when – for the umpteenth time – the Palestinian question will again be taken up by the United Nations.
The fence seems a good representation of the government’s approach to the upcoming tempest, as well as other storms from Turkey and Egypt that are already buffeting the land: hunker down with technological wizardry behind IDF-protected fences and barriers and protect yourself to the best of your ability, because right now other forces are at work over which Israel has little control.
From how to deal with Egypt and the Arab-spring-quickly-changing-into-winter; to the bellicose bluster coming from Turkey’s would-be new sultan, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; to how to combat the Palestinians at the UN – this government’s default setting is that there is little Jerusalem can really do against the extremely powerful currents cutting through the region.
Back in February, during those first giddy days of the Egyptian revolution that unseated president Hosni Mubarak, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in a “Postcard from Cairo, Part 2,” castigated Israel for not coming out strongly enough for those propelled by what he determined was “a quest for freedom, dignity and justice.” Instead, he wrote, “the children of Egypt were having their liberation moment and the children of Israel decided to side with Pharaoh – right to the very end.”
Last Friday and early Saturday morning, as a frenzied mob started chipping away at a wall erected in front of the building housing the Israeli embassy in Cairo, and then tore it down completely and ransacked the embassy itself, perhaps some started to understand Israel’s initial Arab Spring skepticism. Because along with unleashing a yearning for freedom, dignity and justice, this revolution also unleashed a pent-up hatred of Israel – hatred that Erdogan is so adroitly now sailing to win over the Arab world.
And to those who would argue that the starkness of the hatred toward Israel revealed by the mob in front of embassy is because Israel denies the Palestinians their state, the chanting in front of the embassy of “The people want to bring down Israel” should be a sobering reminder that for many this is not about a “two state solution.” Netanyahu gave voice to the view that Israel was faced with forces over which it has little influence and control when he addressed the country Saturday night after last weekend’s harrowing incident at the embassy in Cairo.
"The Middle East is now undergoing a political earthquake of historic proportions. Perhaps this can be compared to what happened a century ago at the end of the First World War with the establishment of a new world order,” Netanyahu told the nation.
"In the face of this historic turmoil we must act coolly and with responsibility. We must understand that these events are occurring as a result of deep and strong political undercurrents. We in Israel have a tendency to think that everything happens because of us, or that we are somehow at fault for the turbulence in our area. There are many external and strong forces at work here. More than anything else, we must in these times act to safeguard our security. This is the anchor of our existence, especially in these turbulent times.“ Even Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who represents this government’s left flank and believes that initiating adramatic diplomatic process with the Palestinians could alleviate Israel’s isolation, echoed Netanyahu’s sentiment, saying that “we are talking about the results of deep historical currents that are not under our control. We can neither determine their direction nor dramatically determine their final results.” There is a disconnect, really, between this view of reality – that forces are at work over which Israel’s actions have no influence – and a view of reality Netanyahu ascribed to many inside Israel, but which actually reflects a view of much of the rest of the world, that “everything happens because of us,” or – charitably put – that Israel by its own actions or initiatives could divert the oncoming flood.
According to this world view, if Israel only apologized to the Turks for the Mavi Marmara incident, or made more concessions to the Palestinians, then the events we are now witnessing could be avoided.
But this government, and this prime minister, view things differently. Take Turkey, for instance. For months there were those inside the government, foremost Barak and career diplomats inside the Foreign Ministry, who argued that it was always “better to be smart than right,” and that an apology to the Turks was a small price to pay for keeping Ankara on Israel’s team, or at the very least keeping them from actively joining up with the other side. .
This position, however, was beaten out by those in the government, such as Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who argued that an apology would not matter, that Erdogan had identified an opportunity to become the new leader of the Islamic world and concluded that the way to achieve that goal was by riding Israel.
According to this view, an apology for the Mavi Marmara would not have diminished Erdogan’s antagonism, and after saying sorry to Turkey, Israel would still have borne the brunt of Erdogan’s overheated rhetoric, since that rhetoric – coupled with kicking Israel’s ambassador out of Ankara – is what more than anything else has transformed Erdogan into the hero of the Arab world. Bashing Israel serves Erdogan’s needs, according to this train of thought, and he would not have desisted the bashing even had Israel apologized. Instead, the bullying would have continued, but this time with Israel voluntarily on its knees.
Erdogan’s behavior has little to do with Israel’s actions, according to this reasoning, and everything to do with the prime minister’s regional ambitions and the huge changes taking place in Turkey.
That same attitude is governing Israel’s approach to the Palestinian gambit at the UN.
One Western diplomatic official acknowledged this week that there was deep frustration with Netanyahu in Europe because he did not initiate anything with the Palestinians.
Back in the spring, before Netanyahu’s May visit to the US for a meeting with President Barack Obama and a speech to Congress, expectations were raised that he would unveil a diplomatic initiative.
That initiative never came, leaving many European leaders who would have liked to see one – or at the very least another settlement construction freeze – extremely frustrated with Netanyahu.
But the sense in the Prime Minister’s Office is that no initiative would really have helped; that Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas was dead set on taking the issue to the UN, on getting the world to impose a solution; and that there is nothing Israel could have done to dissuade him. As proof of this thesis, government officials argue that Abbas did not accept Ehud Olmert’s generous offer in 2008, and now realize that he won’t see a similar offer from Netanyahu; and that Abbas refused to negotiate during the first nine months of Netanyahu’s unprecedented settlement freeze that began in late 2009.
For a variety of reasons – including a belief that Abbas wants to go down in Palestinian history not as the leader who oversaw the split of “Palestine” into Gaza and the West Bank, but rather as the leader who brought about international recognition of a Palestinian state – the feeling in Jerusalem is that Abbas has made the strategic decision not to negotiate, and that nothing this government could realistically offer would shake him of this notion.
So – barring any last minute rabbit that the international community pulls out of its hat to convince Abbas that he stands more to lose than gain by his UN gambit – off to New York we go, with Israel pretty much in the “hunker down and protect ourselves” position.
But hunkering down and protecting ourselves also brings to mind the troubling image from last weekend at the Cairo embassy, where dual steel doors held out long enough for the US government to intervene and ensure that the six Israeli guards who locked themselves inside an inner chamber – some of whom had already sent farewell “I love you” SMS messages to loved ones – were whisked away from the frenzied, hate-filled mob and taken to safety. But what if the Americans had not intervened?