Israel has been dealt three serious blows in recent weeks: one Turkish, one Egyptian and one Palestinian. All came in response to characteristically arrogant Israeli behaviour.
The Turkish government expelled the Israeli ambassador, withdrew its own envoy and suspended military cooperation with Israel in response to Israel’s refusal to apologise for killing Turkish solidarity activists on the “freedom flotilla”. Egyptians stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo and forced out the ambassador and his staff in response to Israel’s refusal to apologise for killing Egyptian soldiers on the Sinai border. The Palestinians defied all Israeli and American pressures to prevent them from pursuing a vote at the meeting of the United Nations general assembly that would recognise Palestine as a full member-state (see Victor Kattan, "Palestinian statehood: a turning-point", 6 July 2011).
Into the depths
In the first two cases, with Turkey and Egypt, Israeli officials have declared that they want no further “escalation” and sought to contain the fallout of Turkish and Egyptian anger. In the Palestinian case, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is making a final bid by offering to meet the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in New York upon the United Nations meetings. The strident threats mouthed by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman towards Turks, Egyptians and the Palestinians are less than worthy.
The true Israeli position is alarmed and defensive for the first time in years. It was spelled out in Netanyahu’s remarks after the sacking of the embassy in Egypt. His remarks reflect the extent of Israel’s anxiety about the transformative effect of the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the outbreak of the Arab revolutions on the regional strategic environment, now accompanied by losing a long-time strategic ally, Turkey (see Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel and the Arab awakening", 9 March 2011).
To date, Israeli policy and strategy have been underpinned by a doctrine of political and military deterrence aimed at preserving the image of an all-powerful and unchallengeable Israel. Whenever it has felt under regional or international pressure to alter its behaviour, Israel has lashed out violently and unremittingly to thwart it. Thus when the Arab states put forward the Arab peace initiative at the Beirut summit in 2002 - offering their collective recognition of Israel in exchange for its recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders - Ariel Sharon, the then Israeli prime minster, responded by attacking the Gaza strip.
Any military action carried out by any Palestinian faction has invariably been met with massive and devastating Israeli military retribution. This Israeli doctrine of deterrence extends to the entire region, and to anything that Israel may deem to constitute a potential future threat, however slight - such as when it bombed the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 (see Paul Rogers, "Israel's security complex", 28 July 2011).
There is a long list of Israeli political and military actions over the years that go beyond any conventional definition of “deterrence” to reach the heights of presumption, conceit and arrogance. Regional and international conditions have allowed and enabled Israel to get away with such behaviour. Arab weakness tempted successive Israeli governments to vie with each other over how aggressive and extreme they could be - in the process turning domestic Israeli politics into a contest between the right and the far-right (see Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present", 23 February 2009).
Mubarak’s Egypt was a “strategic treasure” - as Israeli officials have described it - in this regard, acting to stifle any official or popular Arab attempt to stand up to Israel. Israeli outrages were routinely met with Arab inaction. There were several incidents in which the Israelis killed Egyptian soldiers on the border, but the Mubarak regime never reacted in any deterring manner, let alone demanded an apology or expelling the ambassador.
Nothing better illustrated the depths to which Egypt and the Arabs had sunk than the arrangement to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israel at below the market-price. The fortune squandered in that corrupt deal could have gone a long way to offsetting the annual US aid which Washington uses to hold Egyptian foreign policy hostage. On the international front, meanwhile, the protection of the United States in particular and the west in general allowed, and continues to allow, Israel to persist with its aggressive and arrogant behaviour with impunity and disregard all sources of criticism - including international public opinion (see Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the 'iron wall' revisited", 8 May 2008).
The agent of change
But things have begun to move. A line is being drawn beneath the era when Israel could treat its Arab and other neighbours, government and peoples alike, with contempt. At the level of Arab region, the demise of the Mubarak regime was the big game-changer. But that is not the only factor in the equation. Even those governments that remain in power will now have to rethink their relations with and attitudes to Israel in the light of the region-wide assertion of people power. The Arab revolutions have torn down the barrier that used to insulate the conduct of official policy towards Israel from public opinion. This used to be the exclusive preserve of dictatorial regimes. They alone took the decisions with little regard for their peoples’ views.
Egypt and Jordan’s peace treaties with Israel, in 1979 and 1994 respectively, were signed at the whim of rulers who lacked any democratic or popular legitimacy. The same goes for the diplomatic ties, both covert and open, that several Arab regimes, from Mauritania to Qatar, have forged with Israel. The invasion of the Israeli embassy in Cairo is a turning-point which dramatically illustrates the nature of the change that is occurring: from an era in which Israel was protected by the official Arab order, to an era of confrontation with the Arab peoples themselves - and of payback for decades of arrogant and contemptuous treatment of those peoples.
The key agent of this change in the wider region is Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. The Turkey that toed the Nato line and maintained strong strategic and military relations with Israel is radically redefining itself and its role, and seeking to become a leading player in the region - an understandable aspiration given the tempting leadership vacuum on the Arab side. Turkey has become increasingly tough in standing up to Israeli excesses in recent years, and Israel has accelerated this process with its disdainful treatment of its former ally (see Kerem Oktem, "Turkey and Israel: ends and beginnings", 10 December 2009).
But Turkey’s regional role and influence go beyond its own policy or national interests and strategic ambitions. More importantly - and more dangerously for Israel - it also provides a model for others in the region to follow. They too can refuse to acquiesce to Israeli high-handedness and opt to hit back instead. Turkey has raised the bar for all the Arab governments where their dealings with Israel are concerned. And Israel has only itself to blame.