Israel has received yet another doom-laden warning about its increasing isolation in the region, this time from US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Sunday night warned Israel that it was becoming increasingly isolated in the Middle East. He added Israeli leaders must restart negotiations with the Palestinians and work to restore relations with Egypt and Turkey.
In a blunt assessment made as he was traveling to Israel, Panetta said the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East makes it critical for the Israelis to find ways to communicate with other nations in the region in order to have stability.
So what would he suggest? Should Israel send ambassadors to those countries? Oops. Been there, done that, got expelled. He would be better off addressing his dire warnings to our neighbours, but as I said, he’d return with egg on his face. So much easier, and so much more politically correct, to pressurise the one country that doesn’t need pressurising.
The question arises then, is Israel really as isolated as everyone is making out? Dore Gold in Israel Hayom claims that this is not so, and in any event, there is not much that Israel can do about it, contrary to so many of the “experts’” assertions.
The assumption being worked into much media analysis is that if Israel only launched some spectacular initiative in the peace process, then it could break out from its isolation and reverse regional trends.
But is this assumption really true? It has been well-established that the revolts across the Arab world, in general, and in Egypt, in particular, have nothing to do with Israel. In a major analysis in The New York Review of Books of what is called the “Arab Spring,” Hussein Agha, an adviser to Palestinian leaders who is affiliated with Oxford University, and Rob Malley, a former official on President Clinton’s National Security Council, conclude that the eruption we are witnessing was chiefly against the corrupt leaders of the Arab world
Agha and Malley deal with the question of Israel and simply set it aside: “The least visible, curiously yet wisely, has been Israel. It knows how much its interests are in the balance but also how little it can do to protect them. Silence has been the more judicious choice.” They back-handedly compliment Israeli policy during these months of revolutionary change. They essentially conclude that the Arab Spring is not an Israeli issue and it is a good thing that we kept out of it; in any case, they stress that it is beyond Israel’s capacity to do much about it. Given their conclusion that the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, will be the major beneficiaries of the Arab revolts, it is doubtful that there is an Israeli peace proposal that they would ever find acceptable.
What about the U.N.? Could Israel stop Palestinian action at the U.N. General Assembly by making new concessions to re-start negotiations, as some assert? The hard truth that no one admits is that during the last 18 years, while Israeli governments negotiated with the Palestinians, the PLO observer mission at the U.N. kept initiating anti-Israeli resolutions every year with the backing of the Arab group and the states of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Palestinians are not about to change.
There is a myth widely believed among many Israeli commentators that when the peace process moves forward, Israel’s position at the U.N. improves. These changes have always been marginal and they last only for a short period of time. When Israel and the PLO signed the original Oslo Accords on Sept. 13, 1993, it took three months and one day until the anti-Israeli resolutions were resumed on December 14, 1993.
A more realistic measure of whether a country is isolated is whether world leaders visit or its leadership is welcomed in world capitals. Israel, which welcomes a third of the U.S. House of Representatives and most of Europe’s top leaders cannot be called isolated. Regardless of how they vote at the U.N., many states also seek out intimate bilateral relations with Israel based on security and intelligence ties. India will inevitably vote against Israel at the U.N., but India views Israel as an important strategic ally.
In summary, there is a mistaken conventional wisdom that it is within Israel’s power to alter fundamental political trends across the Middle East. Unfortunately, there are many tectonic shifts that are occurring underground in the region that Israel cannot influence. Resuming a dialogue with the Palestinians has a value in its own right, but any new peace talks will not stop Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan or stabilize Egypt
I get the distinct feeling that all these warnings of isolation are a roundabout way of putting pressure on Israel to enter into fruitless negotiations with partners who are not interested in either negotiating with Israel or with reaching any sort of workable conclusion. I suppose it’s easier to pressurise friendly Israel than take your chances with hostile unstable regimes like Egypt and Turkey.
It’s also possible that these warnings are a form of pressure in order to squeeze yet more concessions from Israel in order to help the Quartet’s or President Obama’s reputation amongst the Arabs and to counter claims that they are Zionist stooges.
In the upside down world of Middle East politics anything is possible.