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