Tuesday, September 13
A closer call at the Israeli embassy in Cairo than initially realized, plus analysis of the new dynamic for Israel in MENA
Israel watches its old alliances crumbleThe rest of the report is an excellent analysis of fast-collapsing support for Israel among regional players and ends with the following observations about the U.S. role:
The overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt, the estrangement of Turkey and a UN vote on Palestinian statehood combine to make an intractable set of problems.
By Adrian Blomfield
Secluded in an emergency operations bunker, long after darkness had fallen to mark the start of the Sabbath last Friday, Israel’s most powerful men had become convinced that history was about to repeat itself.
Hundreds of miles away, six intelligence officers, detailed to protect Israel’s embassy in Cairo, had barricaded themselves in the building’s strongroom. A mob of hammer-wielding Egyptians were closing in. The rioters had already broken down two of the strongroom’s doors and were now hammering on the third. Three of the Israelis drew their guns, preparing for a last stand.
Speaking to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who had been patched through on a secure line, the most senior of the men, identified only as Jonathan, asked his commander-in-chief to deliver news of his capture or death to his wife in person, rather than by telephone.
For all involved, as Israeli officials later recounted, the drama threatened to become a reprise of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when 52 US diplomats were held captive for 444 days after an Islamist mob had stormed the American mission in Tehran.
This time, the most feared outcome was averted -– thanks to the intervention of the White House. Facing American threats of dire retribution if any of the Israelis was harmed, Egypt’s military rulers dispatched a team of commandos to rescue the trapped men, a mission completed in the nick of time.
In the wake of the incident, Egypt and Israel have worked hard to avert a full-scale diplomatic crisis, with both states emphasising their commitment to the peace treaty they signed in the same year the Shah fell. Even so, in Israel the mood was one of relief rather than jubilation. There is a growing conviction that disaster has merely been postponed rather than resolved.
Even as Israel grapples with the situation in Egypt, a fresh crisis – one of possibly even greater magnitude – is about to wash over the Netanyahu government, which could also cause serious damage to Washington’s already weakened standing in the region.
Ignoring vocal US opposition, the Palestinian leadership has announced it will press ahead with a bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations when the General Assembly convenes next week. Both Israel and the United States denounce the move as a unilateral step that will undermine the Middle East peace process, perhaps fatally.
President Barack Obama has already signalled his determination to wield the American veto if the application is brought before the Security Council, scuppering any chances of the state of Palestine being given full membership of the UN. That threat has failed to deter the Palestinians, who could seek recognition instead from the General Assembly, which has the power to make Palestine a non-voting member of the UN . For the Israelis, such an outcome is seen as disastrous because it could pave the way for the Palestinians to pursue them in international courts .
The United States has threatened Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, with a reduction in American aid if he persists with his application. But such a move could be worse news for Israel. Without US financing, the Palestinian Authority could go bankrupt, forcing itself to dissolve and hand full control of the West Bank back to Israel. The prospect of Israeli troops returning to Palestinian cities is relished by no one in Israel .
Protests against the occupation could erupt anyway, leading to demonstrations in sympathy elsewhere in the Arab world, and increasing the pressure on Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s only other ally in the region, to downgrade or even sever relations.
The anger of the street could also be turned against the United States. Mr Obama was once hailed as a hero for standing up to Israel and demanding a halt to Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. But, facing a backlash from the pro-Israeli lobby at home, he later vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement building.
A second veto, or a reduction in Palestinian aid, would only confirm in the eyes of many that the United States – just like Israel – is the enemy of the Arab people and their aspirations.