Live photos of the protesters at the 'March of the Million' rally in Tel Aviv in Kikar Hamedina square, Sept. 3, 2011. Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org
Despite a changing political landscape across the Middle East, Israel's leaders cling to an outdated mindse
September is the month of havoc – or so Israeli officials have been warning. The story is that when the Palestinian Authority puts in a UN bid for statehood, in a few weeks time, it will precipitate what Israel describes as a "diplomatic tsunami" – a wave of hostility as nations stampede to back the Palestinians, leaving Israel unsupported and alone.
Perhaps, then, Israel's latest round of botched diplomacy can be viewed as a typically pre-emptive move. How else to explain the catastrophic fallout with Turkey last week – when, despite months of trying to avoid such an outcome, Turkey downgraded relations with Israel?
After Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla last year, Turkey froze relations, but was willing to thaw them upon receiving an Israeli apology. It seemed like an easy solution, but elements of Israel's far-right coalition torpedoed the idea, despite pressure from the US and repeated attempts to formulate a sufficiently palatable phrasing of "sorry". Now, Turkey has announced that all trade, military and defence ties will be cut – a grave loss of a significant regional ally.
Israeli officials have explained this bust up in terms of an "Islamisation" in Turkey, which is supposed to have used Gaza to score easy points in the Muslim world.
There are also rumblings to the effect that, having been repeatedly snubbed by the European Union, Turkey is somehow visiting its ire upon Israel. This sort of self-perpetuating narrative has its own comfort – namely, that it is always someone else's fault. But once again, Israel's leadership has manifested a capacity to join fake dots and reach misleading conclusions. And it has done so at a time when everything is changing, when old certainties are collapsing and when Israel desperately needs to get with the new programme in the Middle East.
Confused by post-Tahrir reality
Israel has until now relied, in part, upon Arab autocrats to tacitly underwrite its aggressor role in the region. The dictatorship model of the Middle East provided certain Arab leaders who stoppered popular support for the Palestinian cause, preventing it from becoming political – or effective.
Egypt's deposed president Hosni Mubarak's stance meant that Israel could go to war in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in late 2008-09 without fear of regional escalation. And Egypt has been vital in maintaining the siege on Gaza by keeping its border to the strip sealed.
Now, months after Mubarak has gone, Egyptians are signalling that those days are over. If the old regime was hated for its brutality and stagnating corruption, it was also loathed for selling out and compromising Egypt's potential as a regional power.
Recent terror attacks in southern Israel, which killed eight people, exposed the change in mood: when Israel immediately launched air raids on Gaza (which killed at least 14 Palestinians), lambasted Egyptian security in the Sinai and killed at least three Egyptian border guards, the Egyptian ambassador was instantly pulled out of Tel Aviv. Presidential candidate, Amr Moussa, cautioned: "Israel has to realise that the days in which our sons are killed without an appropriate and strong reaction are forever gone …" An apology of sorts ensued from Israel.
But that won't do anything to change Egyptian public opinion, which holds the Palestinian cause dear and the Israeli peace treaty as a sham. The popular hostility and Israel flag-burning isn't a call to war so much as the demand for a better-brokered peace, with the end of Israel 's relentless occupation of the Palestinian people at its non-negotiable core.
And yet, as the Egyptian public speaks – and as their voices are likely to be joined by others trying to shake off brutal dictatorships across the Arab world – Israeli officials have not developed the ears to hear them. As veteran journalist Meron Rapoport observes, Israel is "used to dealing with leaders, not people". Or, to put it another way, Israel doesn't know what to do with Arab democracy.
At grassroots level, there are some springs of hope.
One is the Young Mizrahis – Israeli Jews from Arab and Muslim lands – who penned an open letter of solidarity with the Arab revolutions. Saluting the spirit of the uprisings at a time when most of the Israeli press was signalling pure panic over these developments, the Young Mizrahis wrote: "We now express the hope that our generation – throughout the Arab, Muslim, and Jewish world – will be a generation of renewed bridges that will leap over the walls and hostility created by previous generations … We draw on our shared past in order to look forward hopefully towards a shared future."
That message, connecting Israel to the region through the country's own Middle Eastern heritage, was picked up across the Arabic press, including in Egypt and the occupied Palestinian territories. It speaks to a potential path of communication between Israelis and their Arab neighbours, on equal terms.
On a much bigger scale, there's evidence of a long overdue connection to the region in the mass social protests that erupted across Israel over summer. The largest demonstrations in Israel 's history, these could not help but be influenced by the changes sweeping through the Middle East; the slogans were "Tahrir is here" and the chants for rulers to be ousted ran: "Mubarak, Assad, Bibi Netanyahu".
Ordinarily dismissive of the Arab world, Israelis seem now to be influenced and galvanised by events in the neighbourhood – a potentially relevant switch.
But the trouble is that at a time when Israel most needs change, those at its helm are least capable of delivering it. The far-right Netanyahu coalition excels at sticking to an outdated script, clinging hard to a crumbling status quo.
That's part of the reason why the visible focus within Israel isn't on the emerging democracies in the Middle East, but rather on more familiar matters: preparation for the third Palestinian intifada, predicted to break out after that scheduled diplomatic tsunami.
Israeli news is about mass reserve duty call-ups, mass stockpiling of crowd-dispersal equipment and intensive training for West Bank settlers in how to counter protest. This is the tired old turf that Israelis know so well. And war, after all, is what the nation is most certain of.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab lands.