Softening Stance After Setbacks Israel Fears Complete Isolation
Israel's relations with Turkey are ruined, the Palestinians plan to seek UN recognition for their own state, the embassy in Cairo was stormed: Jerusalem is under massive pressure. Even hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is starting to sound conciliatory.
Is Jerusalem softening its hard-line stance? After weeks of confrontation with friend and foe alike, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose unusually conciliatory words in thanking the Egyptian government for its help during the storm by Egyptian protesters on the Israeli embassy in Cairo on Friday night.
During the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, Netanyahu praised the Egyptian security forces for rescuing six Israeli diplomats and security guards who had been under siege in the embassy building for hours. He continued with warm words for the Egyptian ruling military council, saying: "I am glad that there are also other voices in Egypt and in the leadership who want to bring forward and preserve peace."
Earlier, the government had accused the Egyptian security forces and the military leadership of failing to do enough to protect the Israeli embassy staff. Over the weekend, high-ranking government officials in Jerusalem had expressed outrage that Israel had to get United States President Barack Obama to intervene with Cairo to trigger a commando-rescue operation that averted a lynching of six security guards. By Monday, though, such talk had ceased.
If Netanyahu is now backing down, it is because the situation is serious. Very serious. The Israelis are no strangers to crisis, but they will remember the last few weeks for a long time. Rarely has the Jewish state suffered so many setbacks and blows as this month:
- On Sept. 1, pro-Palestinian activists in London interrupted a performance by the Israeli Symphony Orchesta so vehemently that the BBC had to break off its broadcast of the concert for the first time in its history.
- On Sept. 6, it became known that former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had described Netanyahu as "ungrateful" in a meeting of the National Security Council. By refusing to acknowledge Israel's growing isolation, Netanyahu was endangering his country, Gates said. The fact that Gates' comments became public and weren't contradicted by the US government suggest that they were a semi-official message to Jerusalem.
- The dispute between Turkey and Israel over Israel's refusal to apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish activists in a 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish boat carrying aid for Gaza culminated last week when Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, cancelled its military cooperation with Jerusalem and announced it would provide military protection for Turkish ships heading to Gaza in the future. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman retorted that Israel would cooperate closely in the future with Kurds and Armenians, traditional opponents of Turkey.
- The Palestinian leadership has vowed to seek full United Nations membership for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank at the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 20. Attempts by the European Union and the US to persuade Ramallah to refrain from such a move, by offering them the prospect of fresh peace negotiations, have so far failed to dissuade the Palestinians.
- On Friday night, thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, tore a hole in the surrounding wall, stormed part of the building and held six Israelis under siege for hours. All embassy staff had been evacuated, and only one official was left in the building at the time. Israeli's most important representation in the Arab world is effectively closed now.
Given these crises, Netanyahu is wise to try to calm the waters. For weeks, Israeli politicians and analysts have been warning that Israel's hard-line stance is causing irreparable damage to its reputation among Arabs and in the West. Criticism of the government is especially strong in the security services: the military intelligence service, the domestic intelligence service Shin Bet and the foreign secret service Mossad have repeatedly called on the government in recent weeks to resume talks with the Palestinians in order to ease tensions and lessen international anger toward Israel, the daily Haaretz reported.
Call for Change in Policy
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a long-time opponent of Netanyahu, is leading calls for a change in policy. According to Haaretz, Barak told fellow cabinet ministers that if Israel fails to try to move the peace process forward, it will be seen as obstructionist by its friends in the West.
Israeli President Shimon Peres is also reported to have urged Netanyahu to change his stance on the Palestinians, Israel's Army Radio reported. Peres is said to have personally called on Netanyahu to adopt a "softer" position in the upcoming UN vote on a Palestinian state. Israel fears a blow to its reputation if such a state were to be recognized. It would also face possible legal consequences if a Palestinian state were able to seek prosecutions at the International Criminal Court more easily.
But even if Netanyahu has decided to take the wind out of the Palestinians' sails by making compromise offers, it's doubtful whether he will be able to stay the course. He leads a right-wing coalition in which some members have already made clear they won't back a policy of reconciliation. Netanyahu had only just made his comments praising Egypt when members of his cabinet began sounding confrontational again. If the Palestinians dare to seek UN recognition for a Palestinian state, Israel must annex the West Bank, four ministers from various right-wing parties demanded.