Analysis: Israel faces perfect storm in shifting region

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 08, 2011 10:34 AM
Analysis: Israel faces perfect storm in shifting region

By Crispian Balmer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Militarily strong, Israel is battling a diplomatic storm as Arab uprisings upset once-stable relationships and worsen the Jewish state's isolation in its conflict with the Palestinians.

Domestic political pressures are exacerbating the problems, as is the perceived weakness of Israel's main ally, the United States, which is itself struggling to adapt to the consequences of the turbulence that has swept the Arab world this year.

The storm is not expected to blow over quickly, with the Palestinian push for recognition of statehood at the United Nations later this month and the moribund peace process only adding to Israel's sense of loneliness.

"I am very concerned by the daily deterioration of Israel's strategic balance," said Oded Eran, head of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies and a former ambassador.

"We have seen a deterioration of our relations with Turkey and Egypt, and we have witnessed problems in our relations with America. The absence of any viable peace process and the specter of a U.N. resolution (on Palestinian statehood) is only making things worse."

Diplomatic crises in the Middle East have a history of degenerating into war, and although conflict appears unlikely at present, some senior Israelis are sounding the alarm.

"After the Arab Spring, we predict that a winter of radical Islam will arrive," Major-General Eyal Eisenberg, the chief of the Israeli army's Home Front Command, said this week.

"As a result, the possibility for a multi-front war has increased, including the potential use of weapons of mass destruction," he told a conference.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East assumed to have a nuclear arsenal. Along with Western powers, it believes Iran is seeking an atomic capability, something Tehran denies.

Although government ministers swiftly dismissed the risks Eisenberg mooted, his comments revealed a skittishness at the top just days after Turkey downgraded its ties with Israel and vowed to expand its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean.

SEEKING AN APOLOGY

Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, in 1949, but relations nosedived last year when Israeli commandos boarded an aid flotilla challenging a naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave Gaza, killing nine Turks in ensuing clashes.

A report into the incident released last week by the United Nations called Israel's use of force "unreasonable." It also said the blockade was legal, a reading that Israel felt vindicated its decision not to apologize to Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rejected this, cut back diplomatic representation and froze defense trade, as well as promising a more active role for his country's powerful navy.

The dispute flared just three weeks after Egypt threatened to pull its own ambassador from Tel Aviv following the deaths of five Egyptian security personnel, who were shot dead as Israeli forces tracked down suspected Palestinian militants who had earlier infiltrated its border and killed eight Israelis.

The row with Cairo influenced Israel's decision to hold back on a major military offensive in Gaza, local media said.

Israeli ministers remain much more concerned by long-running concerns over Iran and Syria and have been eager to play down tensions with their other neighbors, blaming the uncertainty of Arab unrest for much of the friction.

Egypt's new rulers are more susceptible to widespread anti-Israeli sentiment in their country than was the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak. Turkey is also looking to carve out a significant part for itself in a reshaped Arab world.

"In this new role for Turkey, Israel doesn't have much of a part to play," said Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Tel Aviv.

"It needs to curry favor with the Arab world, and it's very easy to curry favor ... if you're anti-Israel," he added.

LEADERSHIP VACUUM

Washington has said little in public about the rows and officials say it is working behind the scenes to calm nerves among a trio of allies that are vital to its interests.

But Yossi Shain, a professor at both Tel Aviv University and Georgetown University in Washington, believes President Barack Obama's administration is part of the problem.

"Everyone is suffering from the lack of coherence and leadership from America," he said. "Obama is not exuding any authority or influence on anyone. This vacuum creates a sense of impunity for attacking Israel with rhetoric."

Complicating matters is the fact that Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have notoriously bad relations.

Only this week, a Bloomberg columnist reported that former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had accused Netanyahu of being an "ungrateful ally" shortly before he left office, adding that the Israeli leader was "endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel's growing isolation."

Diplomats in Jerusalem have said the Obama administration was deeply frustrated by Israel's refusal to freeze settlement building in the West Bank as a way to kick start peace talks.

Netanyahu, head of a coalition government that includes pro-settler parties, says there should be no pre-conditions to resuming negotiations, and no doubt feels comforted by the wholehearted support he enjoys in the U.S. Congress.

But Shain said Israel's failure to articulate a coherent Palestinian policy was harming its standing.

"Israel's main difficulty and challenge, one that the government has not addressed, is the issue of the Palestinians. At the end of the day, it is what Israel does in the West Bank that will be paramount," he said.

That issue will take center stage when the Palestinians ask the United Nations this month for an upgrade in their status. Although the United States and Israel oppose the unilateral move, at least 120 other countries are likely to say 'yes'.

"Israel is in a quagmire over this and we need to handle the situation differently," Shain added.

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)