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Embassy Clash Is One More Crisis for Israel

Has Netanyahu prepared his country for this trying moment?

Marc Tracy
September 12, 2011
President Obama.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Obama.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Ironically, it was the first weekend in several weeks without mass social justice protests that proved to be the weekend of Israeli malaise. On Friday night, mobs of angry Egyptians assaulted the Israeli Embassy in Cairo—symbol of Israel’s most important regional alliance—busting its wall, accessing some offices and seizing some (unimportant) papers, and forcing the evacuation of nearly all the embassy staff, including the ambassador and his family. The event has justifiably provoked a wave of analysis concluding that Israel truly has its back against the wall: “Cairo Attack Deepens Sense of Siege,” said the Washington Post; “even its oldest alliances are looking frayed,” reported the Los Angeles Times; “increasingly isolated and grappling with a rapidly transformed Middle East,” relayed the other Times. And there are the soured relations with Turkey; the upcoming Palestinian moves at the United Nations, including the new Saudi threat regarding them; and even the decline of the Israeli-American “special relationship,” as seen both in the death of the peace process and the persistent dislike between the two countries’ leaders. As Haaretz’s influential center-left columnist Ari Shavit strikingly put it, “The conflict with the Palestinians and the face-off with Turkey are amplifying each other, while they amplify hostility to Israel in the Arab world. The expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Ankara found an echo in the extrication of the Israeli ambassador from Cairo.” As they wouldn’t actually put it in the region, it’s a lot of straws for one camel’s back.

The embassy storming reflected a real undercurrent of Egyptian rage at Israel and, more directly, of official Egyptian complicity with Israel’s government (and existence); it is telling that Egypt’s Interior Ministry’s building was not spared riots, either. And, as both Shavit and his editor, Aluf Benn, argue, if these crises are not directly Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fault, we are setting the bar low if we simply excuse him there. Bibi has not done nearly enough to put Israel in a position such that more of the international community would be more sympathetic to Israel’s perspective on the Egyptian rage, the irresponsible Turkish brinksmanship, the Palestinian Authority’s flailing attempt to upgrade its U.N. status. Instead, he is pursuing what one senior official called a “porcupine policy”—pricking its sharp hairs out whenever trouble nears—meanwhile obstinately continuing to antagonize the U.S. and build more settlements.

Might I suggest that now is the time for Netanyahu and his government to strike back—diplomatically, that is—with firmness and creativity? Or, if not, that Obama—as a friend to Israel as well as someone keenly interested in maintaining Israel’s integrity and influence—should do it for him? That these undeniable crises might in fact be opportunities to advance Israeli interests? Already the embassy storming brought Israel and the actual Egyptian government closer: there will be a crackdown on violent (and, likely, nonviolent as well) dissent in Egypt, and some of the rioters will be tried; and it was Egyptian commandos who rescued six guards trapped at the embassy. These steps will cause initial blowback among protesters, and one wonders whether a future, more democratic Egyptian government would also take them. But they also bring home the fundamental shared interests between the two countries, which more democracy is not simply going to make evaporate. And indeed, the crisis is prompting prominent Egyptian voices—including Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who became the face, such as it was, of the Tahrir Square movement that ousted Hosni Mubarak—to question whether a country with actual pressing problems (widespread impoverishment, a lack of democracy, corruption) should be focused on its peaceful neighbor to the north.

The crisis also brought Israel and its paramount ally, the U.S., closer: it was to President Obama whom Bibi turned at the embassy’s darkest moment, and Obama who came through, applying hard pressure (threatening “consequences,” reportedly) to the Egyptian government to resolve the situation (apparently Field Marshal Tantawi, essentially the Egyptian leader, at first didn’t return his calls, but soon got the message that he had better do so). Netanyahu thanked both Egypt and the U.S. afterward. Top leaders from Britain and Germany condemned the embassy assault. (Iran’s government praised it, so there’s that.)

There are even signs that Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey—who, as a more equal U.S. ally and a hugely popular (and popularly elected) leader, has a much wider range of action than Egypt’s government—is pulling back from last week’s tantrum. That pledge to offer Turkish ships to accompany humanitarian aid to Gaza? Oh, Erdogan was just misquoted about that, you see. Erdogan’s threat that he would try to visit Gaza during an upcoming trip to Cairo? Nah, he won’t really, according to Turkey’s foreign minister.

We still need to see how things play out with the P.A., but reports that it won’t go to the Security Council are evidence that it respects the continued resilience of the Israeli-American alliance, despite everything.

Things are not hunky-dory. But transcendently talented politicians know that the literal definition of a “crisis” is a moment where things could radically break in either direction. They translate Warren Buffett’s famous axiom, “Be greedy when others are scared,” into politics. At this point, it honestly seems too much to expect this of Netanyahu. But we do know he has a penchant for doing whatever his personal survival ensures. It falls, rather, to Obama—who some have believed to have been transcendently talented, and who has shown flashes of a certain genius before—to come up with a way to turn this crisis to Israel’s, and therefore his own country’s, advantage. An Arab Fall after the Arab Spring that doesn’t turn on Israel and America: that would be something.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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