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September 10, 2011 9:56 pm

Israel’s Uncertainties

avatar by Melvin Konner

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The Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Photo: David Shankbone.

Much has happened since I left Israel in June.

First, the feared Gaza flotilla redux fizzled just outside the Greek harbor. Thanks to Israeli diplomacy, Greece sent its Navy out to turn the boats back as they set out to sea. Apparently, struggling Greece now needs Israel more than it needs left-wing sentimentalists who think they are helping the Gazan people but are mainly helping Hamas.

Or perhaps it’s Turkey’s anti-Israel animus that is pushing Greece toward Israel. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, years ago began a determined, deliberate weakening of relations with the Jewish state. Among other things, he publicly insulted Shimon Peres by walking out on him at Davos before a large, distinguished audience, to protest Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza.

Things worsened after Israeli commandos killed nine activists, mostly Turkish, after boarding a ship in the last flotilla approaching Gaza. The Israelis defended themselves with guns against an attack with clubs and other crude weapons. Turkey (where the flotilla was partly organized) demanded an apology and reparations, and Israel tried to negotiate a compromise.

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But last month the UN’s Palmer Report on the incident was leaked. It criticized Israel for excessive use of force, but it also declared the Israeli blockade of Gaza legal and confirmed that the commandos had been attacked. The outraged Turks stretched their demands: apologize, compensate, and by the way, end the Gaza blockade. Israel now understood that Erdogan could not be satisfied.

Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and downscaled the two countries’ ties to the lowest level. Erdogan is playing not only to his country’s anti-Zionist crowd, but also to the Arab street, in a bid for regional leadership that, since he isn’t Arab, seems almost as improbable as Iran’s bid, now lost in Syrian turmoil.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Spring has become a long, hot summer. Gazan terrorists infiltrated through Sinai—supposedly under Egyptian control—and murdered Israelis in three different places near the resort town of Eilat. Israel responded of course, but in the resulting exchange of fire Egyptian soldiers were killed, angering many of their countrymen. Caught between undesirable outcomes, Israel accepted the presence of scores of thousands of Egyptian troops in Sinai for the first time in decades.

With confusion about Egypt’s future, this result confirmed what many predicted as soon as Mubarak left: Israel would have to prepare to defend its Southern border, which it has not had to do for many years. This does not necessarily mean war, it means uncertainty, but it also means diversion of resources. And in the last few days, Cairo mobs have torn down the wall around the Israeli embassy and, for their own protection, the ambassador and his family were whisked away in a military jet.

All this time, hundreds of thousands of protestors in Israel—Jewish and Arab citizens alike—have been marching and pitching tent cities, decrying extreme inequality in a country considered socialist a couple of decades ago. By avoiding foreign policy, these protests rallied a wide swath of Israeli society. They have now waned with little result, but the discontent they revealed beneath the economic miracle, with wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, will not go away.

Nor will the foreign threats. Egypt’s army does not want war with Israel, but what if the Muslim Brotherhood, the only well-organized group outside the army, gains power in the elections? Turkey now vows to send its gunboats to protect the next Gaza flotilla. What does Israel do then? Drop the blockade? Hope they are bluffing? Take on the Turkish navy?

Syria is in turmoil, its government slaughtering its own protesting people. Will this end badly for Israel? Nobody can say. Will Iraq be stable after America withdraws? We have to hope so. The Palestinians press on with their bid for unilateral statehood through a vote in the UN General Assembly, which should be taken soon. The result on the ground? Probably not much, but who knows? Settlement expansion continues in the West Bank, making peace talks less plausible with each new apartment.

And Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spin.

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