Israel Seen Increasingly Isolated In Middle East

Turkey expelled Israel's ambassador on Friday after the U.N. released a report on the deadly 2010 Turkish "flotilla incident." The report concluded that Israel had used excessive force to stop Turkish ships bringing supplies to Palestinians in Gaza. Times of London correspondent James Hider talks with host Scott Simon about the latest downgrade in ties between Turkey and Israel, and Israel's strain in ties with Egypt and Jordan since the Arab Spring. This month, Palestinians also take their case for statehood to the U.N. General Assembly.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Israel is facing growing diplomatic isolation in its region. Yesterday, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and other diplomats from Ankara, and the popular protest known as the Arab Spring have eroded Israel's ties with some other neighbors. To talk about all this we have James Hider on the line. He's a correspondent for the Times of London who is based in Jerusalem. James, thanks for being with us.

JAMES HIDER: Morning.

SIMON: And let's begin with Turkey because Israel and Turkey had friendly relations for a number of years, but then last year Israeli forces killed several Turkish citizens on that ship that was taking supplies into Gaza. Why did the Turks downgrade diplomatic ties yesterday.

HIDER: Well, as you said, the ties between the two countries have been going down rapidly for the last year, but yesterday was the release of a U.N. report into that boarding of the Mavi Marmara on May 31st last year, and it said that Israeli's naval blockade of Gaza was legitimate, but it criticized Israel for using excessive force.

And so Israel was quite happy that its blockade was seen as legitimate in self-defense with security where it matters, but no weapons can get into Gaza to Hamas, but they were quite angry that they were accused of excessive force. Now Turkey was extremely angry that this was deemed legal, that the whole blockade. So they demanded that Israel apologize immediately and Israel didn't, so they turned around the very next day and expelled the ambassador. So that has now brought Israel's diplomatic ties with Turkey to an all-time low.

SIMON: Help us understand how important Israel's relationship with Turkey is and has been.

HIDER: It's been hugely important. Turkey was the first regional power to recognize Israel in 1949, and it's always had very close ties, particularly with the secular army in Turkey it's had very close military ties with Israel. They were top trading partners in defense trade. Israel was selling drones to Turkey. It was upgrading its tanks, and in 2007 it's believed that Turkey actually allowed Israeli airplanes to go through its airspace to bomb a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria.

So that's how close the cooperation was, and that that is now disappearing is of great concern I think to both sides.

SIMON: James, are there any signs that Israel and Turkey at heart want to repair this breach?

HIDER: I think they would both like to step away from this breach at the moment, but it's very difficult for them to do without losing face. But this morning we're seeing Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the U.N., calling on both sides to heed the recommendations in the UN report to renew their diplomatic ties. The State Department has also been pressuring both sides and has very good ties to both sides to do so.

But there have also been reports in the Turkish press that Turkey is planning on beefing up its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and may even accompany the next ships going into Gaza, which would complicate the issue very seriously.

SIMON: Help us understand why a lot of people in the Israeli government find it difficult to be entirely enthused with Arab Spring, particularly, for example, events in Egypt.

HIDER: I think they see in the long term that the possibility that democratic states in the Arab world would lead to a more secure situation, but in the short term they're extremely worried that there'd be anti-Israeli sentiment by these regimes for a long time, even as lots of them had close ties with Israeli like Egypt. And now with these bubbling sentiments there's a lot of anti-Israeli feeling in the Arab street, and Cairo threatened to withdraw its own ambassador last month; there was a shooting down on the Egypt - Gaza border.

And that has made Israel extremely worried because the Egyptian peace accord is the cornerstone of Israel's entire regional strategic defense, that it has this peace accord with Egypt since 1979. And if that were to be endangered at the same time that its other strategic partner, Turkey, was downgrading its ties, I think Israel should feel isolated and extremely worried.

SIMON: And Jordan?

HIDER: There have been calls for the end of Jordan's own peace treaty with Israel to be annulled by pro-democracy demonstrators. There's not any particular danger of that happening. The Jordanian monarch has proven quite durable and stable, but it's a reflection of the sentiment on the streets in some of these countries.

SIMON: James Hider, correspondent for the Times of London in Jerusalem, thanks so much.

HIDER: Thank you.

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