Israel likes to portray itself as a small, defenceless nation in the middle of a sea of angry Arabs. However, while Israel is anything but defenceless – it is after all a nuclear power with one of the most well-equipped and well-trained armies in the world – it is indeed beginning to be the focus of an upsurge of hostility and anger from its neighbours. Even long-time allies have started to lose their patience with Israel for its consistent law-breaking, daily human rights violations, lack of accountability and unabashed arrogance about the fact that it has, until now, been able to commit serious crimes with impunity.
Israel's status as a pariah state is becoming more and more entrenched as a result of two key developments. The first is the gradual democratisation of countries in the Middle East and the second is Israel's own conduct in refusing, for example, to apologise for killing the citizens of a former friendly state, or to bring those responsible to justice.
In terms of the democratic shifts in the region, countries like Turkey and Egypt, which once turned a blind eye to Israel's criminality or were complicit therein, are finally waking up and taking a stand against the bully of the Middle East. Israel's past reliance on its close ties with the Turkish military is no longer a winning hand. Since the ruling AKP came to power the army has been sent back to barracks and its influence over Turkish politics has diminished. The Israeli government now has to contend with its peers in Ankara and the likes of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who is making it very clear that the past alliance between Israel and Turkey is no longer assured. Understandably, he maintains that any relationship between the two countries is conditional and must be based on mutual respect. It is Israel's apparent lack of respect and, it could be said, contempt for the people of Turkey which is placing the once cosy relationship in jeopardy.
Ever since May 2010 when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens on board the Mavi Marmara on a humanitarian mission to break the siege on Gaza but still in international waters, Turkey's stance against Israel has been hardening. Erdogan's government in Ankara has waited patiently to give time for diplomacy to run its course in the hope that Israel would do the right thing and offer, at the very least, an apology for the killings. To no avail, it seems; the Israelis responsible have not been brought to justice and Israel's piracy and kidnapping has gone unpunished. Israel's refusal to offer a simple apology for the murder of Turkish civilians is an insult that the government of Turkey cannot let pass; it has become a matter of national dignity.
The escalation in diplomatic tensions between the two "allies" has seen Turkey expel Israeli diplomats from Ankara and downgrade its own diplomatic representation in Tel Aviv. Turkey has also said that its navy will now maintain a constant presence in the Mediterranean and provide a military escort for any future humanitarian flotillas heading for Gaza. Furthermore, Prime Minister Erdogan is visiting Egypt, with speculation rife about a possible visit to the besieged Gaza Strip. That would be a bold statement creating both anger and embarrassment in Israel which would be applauded across the Arab and Muslim world. Erdogan's visit to Cairo may also see Turkey and Egypt solidifying their stand against Israel; if so, that would be bad news for the Zionist state.
Israel's arrogance and refusal to apologise for its criminality is foolhardy as it has the potential to lose one of its strongest allies in the region. Turkey is emerging as a huge regional power, politically and economically, and is leading the way for many other countries to step out of the shadows and challenge Israel. Many of the emerging post-revolution Arab governments will be looking to Turkey for leadership and guidance and may well take Ankara's lead on how to deal with Tel Aviv.
In Egypt, the same two issues are also having a major impact on the country's relationship with Israel. Democratic change and Israeli intransigence place the countries' peace treaty under threat. The Zionist state has enjoyed the protection of its Egyptian ally ever since the Camp David accords in 1979; post-revolutionary Egypt, however, is emerging as an entirely different kettle of fish. While the government and military institutions may more or less still be the same, the Egyptian people are not and never will be the same again. The nation has found its voice and will not be silenced. If the first significant victim of the Egyptian people's freedom was Hosni Mubarak, the second may well be the treaty with their Israeli neighbour. It suited Israel to be surrounded by Arab dictators, particularly Mubarak, at its beck and call, but that era has now passed.
When Israeli troops killed six Egyptian soldiers on the border recently, could Tel Aviv have guessed that this would prompt demonstrations in Cairo leading to the Zionist ambassador and his staff having to flee the country? It is significant that the Palestinian flag was raised alongside the Egyptian flag over the embassy after the demonstration; that is indicative of the mood of the people of Egypt. The sight of the Palestinian flag around the Middle East does not bode well for the Zionist state.
Israel is in a quandary, not simply because the Middle East is undergoing such a seismic shift but also, primarily, because Israel is not evolving and adapting its own policies to the changes taking place around it. The stubborn refusal to amend its policies and practices towards the Palestinians is clearly costing Israel in terms of relations with its erstwhile allies.
Cries from Tel Aviv about the attack on the "sovereign land" of its embassy in Cairo fall on stony ground. How can the Israeli government have the audacity to complain while it continues to abuse Palestinians in their own land; build illegal settlements across the occupied Palestinian territories; kill Egyptians going about their lawful business; launch invasions of Lebanon apparently at will; and annex land stolen from its Arab neighbours? Israel cannot continue to insist on one set of rules for itself and another for everyone else. It has to get used to being judged by the laws and conventions by which the rest of the world is expected to abide. There is a limit to global patience, and it is running out, as is the time for Israel to make amends. If it ends the occupation of Palestine, perhaps that will give Israel a glimmer of hope. If not, what sort of future can there be for a pariah Zionist state in a sea of emerging Arab democracies?
Israel: A Pariah State
Dr. Hanan Chehata