As a raucous mob of protestors on Friday stormed past passive Egyptian policemen, breaching the wall around Israel’s Cairo embassy and sacking the unsecured parts of the building, Israel turned for help to the Obama Administration. Looking to the U.S. to shield it from international opprobrium has become a familiar pattern for Israel in recent years, but the result was telling: President Obama got on the phone with the Egyptians and ensured a restoration of order that allowed the safe and orderly evacuation of the Israeli embassy. But nobody expects the ambassador, who flew home late Friday on an emergency flight, to return to Cairo any time soon. The best Washington was able to was to ameliorate the damage — just as it had tried (but failed) to do amid mounting tensions between Israel and Turkey that led Ankara to expel Israel’s ambassador last week. And, of course, the U.S. has also failed to bully or bribe the Palestinians into stopping their bid for recognition of statehood at the U.N. later this month in what would be an international vote of no-confidence in the U.S.-led peace process.
The wave of people-power rebellion that has swept across the Middle East over the past year has left Israel increasingly isolated as newly empowered Arab publics reject the passive tolerance of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and acceptance of U.S. regional authority that had been hallmarks of the regimes like that of President Hosni Mubarak. Even before the Arab rebellion, Turkey — its own government more responsive to public opinion than any in modern Turkish history — had taken a lead in breaking with the Oslo-era consensus, under which European and Arab nations tacitly accepted that the Israeli-Palestinian file was the exclusive preserve of the United States. Ankara had challenged Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinians of Gaza, to the point of backing a flotilla to defy the blockade of the territory, which culminated in the Israeli raid on the Maavi Marmara in which nine Turks and a Turkish-American were killed. Israel’s refusal to apologize for those deaths prompted Turkey to downgrade diplomatic ties last week.
Turkey’s move, and its promise to mount an aggressive diplomatic campaign in support of the Palestinians’ U.N. bid for statehood in September had seemed to signal the arrival of the “diplomatic tsunami” that Defense Minister Ehud Barak had warned was bearing down on Israel in September. (Barak, of course, had been trying — in vain — to warn the Netanyahu government that forestalling the deluge required urgent and dramatic concessions on Israel’s part to restart the peace process.)
It had been widely predicted that Egypt — whose interim military junta is under pressure from mounting public anger over the pace and content of the post-Mubarak transition, and which has sought to relieve that pressure through symbolic concessions such as putting Mubarak on trial — would find it difficult to resist popular demands that it follow the Turkish lead. While the Egyptian military is likely to resist any pressure to repudiate the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel, it looks increasingly unlikely to maintain Mubarak’s tactical alliance with the Israelis. But even before the generals could decide whether a diplomatic downgrade was another of the symbolic concessions it could make to its ever-restive public, the crowd that gathered outside Israel’s embassy — outraged by Israel’s recent killing of Egyptian five border guards during a hot-pursuit action against militants who had staged a terror attack across the Egypt-Israel border, and by what they saw as the generals’ feckless response — decided to force the junta’s hand.
The U.S. by virtue of its annual stipend to the Egyptian military can ensure that they keep the peace, but it can’t persuade Middle Eastern governments responsive to the will of their own citizens to follow the U.S. diplomatic line on Israel. Still, Egypt’s interim rulers can’t afford the spectacle of chaos and the violation of international law and diplomatic norms on display in Friday’s embassy storming, and the “state of alert” declared by the generals on Saturday may portend a wider crackdown on protest action.
But for Israel, it’s a harsh reminder of Washington’s diminishing ability to protect it from the diplomatic consequences of its own domestic political surge to the right over the past decade. An eleventh-hour Obama Administration effort to prevent the breakdown with Turkey by brokering an agreement that would involve an Israeli apology for the deaths aboard the Maavi Marmara was scuppered when Netanyahu was dissuaded from apologizing by his right-wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. And Netanyahu has given Washington and the Europeans precious little to work with in their efforts to forestall a diplomatic confrontation at the U.N. later this month. That’s why many Israelis worry, with good reason, that the departure of their ambassadors to Cairo and Ankara in the space of a single week are a grim portent of things to come — and the fact that the U.S. may not be able to much more for them diplomatically than FEMA had done for the residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.