Israel Feeling Increasingly Isolated From Allies
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the weekend, a mob broke into Israel's embassy in Cairo. The ambassador and his staff fled, and it's not clear when or if they're going to return. Earlier this month, Turkey kicked out Israel's ambassador to Ankara and other top diplomats. And later this month, Palestinians will appeal to the United Nations for recognition as a state.
The Obama administration promises to veto the application if it comes before the Security Council, but the General Assembly is expected to vote in favor and by a wide margin.
While some of its neighbors are technically still at war with Israel, the once close relationship with Turkey and especially peace with Egypt changed the dynamic in the Middle East. As relations with Ankara and Cairo now bristle, how does Israel's isolation change the Middle East? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, science and the workout playlist fixation. But first, Israel's isolation. And we begin with Joel Greenberg, Washington Post correspondent in Jerusalem. Nice to have you with us.
JOEL GREENBERG: Good to be on the show.
CONAN: And today the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Cairo and told the Arab League that Israel had isolated itself.
GREENBERG: Well, that's a Turkish take on it. I mean, the Turks are waiting for an Israeli apology for a raid on a flotilla that was headed for Gaza last year and basically describing it that if Israel apologizes, then relations can improve. And there really is a debate here about how much of this has to do with Israeli actions and how much of it has to do with regional changes that are much larger than what Israel does or doesn't do.
CONAN: And indeed in Egypt, at least partly the reason for the demonstration in front of the embassy there was the death of five Egyptian soldiers shot to death by mistake, by Israeli soldiers in pursuit of Palestinians.
GREENBERG: Right, that was definitely the trigger, and that incident last month started these demonstrations. But again, the roots of that run deeper, and they have a lot to do also with the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. There's a lot of sympathy for the Palestinians in Egypt. And so the opinions of the Israelis are generally low when looked at through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So I think what we're seeing playing out here are long-standing trends that have been exacerbated by recent events.
CONAN: And the long-standing trend surely in Egypt, as you say, the relationship with Israel was never popular. It was enforced by the government of President Mubarak. With his departure and the Arab Spring, isn't this, well, kind of inevitable?
GREENBERG: Yes, what's happened is with the toppling of Mubarak, public opinion has bubbled to the surface. I mean, this was all bottled up, as you said, under Mubarak. And the Israelis are now having to contend with the Egyptian public, not only with the Egyptian leadership, and that's something new, and Israeli policies now reverberate across - in public opinion, and Israeli policymakers have to take that into consideration.
CONAN: And in Turkey, the relationship that Israel once enjoyed was with a much more secular government. Since the more Islamist party has been in power now these last several years, things have gone steadily downhill until, well, this flotilla was organized in Turkish territory, and the ship that was attacked was a Turkish ship. The United Nations report found the blockade of Gaza itself was legal but the Israeli commandos had used excessive force in the deaths of those nine people on that ship.
GREENBERG: Right. Again, this was the trigger. This was what exacerbated relations. But actually, they started deteriorating earlier. I would say a turning point was Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza at the end of 2008 and early 2009, which was very sharply condemned by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and really marked the downturn.
Again, this stemmed, of course, from Erdogan's own posture and the attitude he wanted to take toward other Muslim nations in the Arab world. But certainly the Israeli offensive in Gaza, which killed some 1,400 people, many of them civilians, was something that drew very sharp condemnations and soured relations with Turkey.
So this deterioration has been going on, and the flotilla incident just aggravated it further, and then Israel's refusal to apologize for the killings on that Turkish ship, on grounds that the soldiers were defending themselves, this has again kind of been the nail on the coffin of the relationship, in a way, and led to the expulsion of the ambassador. And right now it doesn't seem likely that things will be restored to anything near normal in the near future.
CONAN: And as you look ahead, Turkey is, of course, also playing a much greater regional role, and Prime Minister Erdogan talked yesterday as he was on his way to Cairo, saying this incident with the flotilla was in fact an act of war, but Turkey's dignity, they decided to act with restraint.
But Turkey is asserting itself much more as a regional power.
GREENBERG: It definitely is, and I think Erdogan mentioned this again today, that they said that they would see to it that there was freedom of navigation or freedom in the eastern Mediterranean. In other words, they're trying to assert themselves in an area that they feel Israeli has been policing or has been imposing its authority as regards flotillas and aid flotillas to Gaza.
Turkey is saying no, you know, we're going to see to it that there'll be free naval passage in that area. That sets up a potential confrontation at sea between both countries, though people don't think that's seriously likely, but it certainly creates an atmosphere of hostility. And it's part of a Turkish attempt to assert influence in the area and in a way to stand up to Israel in a way on these issues.
CONAN: The other way, of course, to get materials to Gaza is across the border with Egypt, and what is that crossing like now?
GREENBERG: Well, there is a way to get it through Egypt. The crossing from Rafah, which is the border town between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, is open for passage of people. It's really just basically for people and not cargo. Cargo can go through crossings that Israel controls, and those shipments have gone through. But of course they're restricted and limited.
There's still a limit on construction materials. The Israelis did loosen up a lot after the flotilla incident, but there are still restrictions in force, not as severe as they were.
Another way that goods get into Gaza, of course, is through tunnels that are underneath the Gaza-Egypt border, and that is a main conduit for all kinds of supplies, including even cars and of course food and many other goods.
So Gaza's economy is really managing in a very precarious way but through all kinds of means that are not officially sanctioned, like the tunnels. But sea - challenging Israel's sea blockade is not really a viable way to go because the Israelis have made it clear that they're not going to allow material to arrive from there because they're out to prevent smuggling of arms to Gaza by sea.
CONAN: And of course there's every reason to believe that arms are going through some of those tunnels too. And finally, Joel Greenberg, this next confrontation, if you will, will be diplomatic, at the United Nations. And does Israel see this as a threat, the Palestinian attempt to be - gain recognition as a state?
GREENBERG: Well, the Israelis are saying that this really sets back any prospect for negotiations. The Israeli argument is that if the United Nations recognizes the Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, which are before the Six Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza - but the feeling in Israel is that that will kind of entrench both sides in positions that will be very hard to bridge.
And the Israelis are insisting that all these issues, including borders, have to be resolved through negotiations, and they're describing this as a unilateral step that is trying to impose some kind of a settlement and that this is really not the way to go.
So the Israelis have been dead against this initiative, and they've said that they're going to try to fight it as much as they can diplomatically. And on the ground they're also laying reactions and responses, but we don't know yet what kind of diplomatic response there will be.
CONAN: Joel Greenberg, thanks very much for the time. We appreciate it.
GREENBERG: Thank you.
CONAN: Joel Greenberg is the Washington Post correspondent in Jerusalem. And joining us now from his home in Tel Aviv is Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist and editorial writer for the newspaper Ha'aretz. And nice to have you with us today.
AKIVA ELDAR: Hi, thank you for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And that's the situation of Israel's new isolation, and there's one argument, I guess, about how we got here, but the next question is - where do we go from here?
ELDAR: Well, I'll pick it up from where my colleague Joel Greenberg left off. I think that the only way to get out of this mess is to resume the negotiations. But unlike what Joel said, the Palestinians are not demanding to get back to the '67 lines. What they are actually offering is to go back to May 19, 2011, to President Obama's formula, which he has presented in the State Department, which means that negotiations will be based on the '67 lines with mutual land swap between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
And this is not the way that Netanyahu sees this. The thing (technical difficulties) ...
CONAN: And the phone has dropped out between...
ELDAR: (technical difficulties) political as well as legal claim to those territories, to the West Bank, and of course East Jerusalem, the Old City, is at least as good as the Palestinian. And he wants to start from scratch, just to put aside what was already agreed between Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barat and between President Abbas and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
You know, they have (technical difficulties) ...
CONAN: And we're going to try to get this - (technical difficulties) - we're going to try to get this telephone problem straightened out. We're going to have to take a short break in just a moment anyway. We do want to invite you into the conversation, as well. Give us a call. How does Israel's isolation now, given the problems with Turkey and with Egypt, and given the prospect of more isolation at the United Nations with the vote on the Palestinian proposal later this month, how does that change the dynamic in the Middle East?
Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with Akiva Eldar of Ha'aretz. Also joining us in a few minutes is going to be Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, who served as advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered the administration's top two Mideast peace envoys back to the region this week. It's a final push to avoid the next diplomatic crisis, as Palestinians try to win recognition as a state at the United Nations later this month.
The U.S. promises to veto any measure in the Security Council, but Israel finds itself increasingly isolated, without the support of long-time key Muslim allies Turkey and Egypt. How does Israel's isolation change the Middle East now? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist and editorial writer for Ha'aretz, and he's with us from his home in Tel Aviv. Joining us now by phone from his home in Jerusalem is Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, also served as an advisor to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and current Prime Minister Netanyahu. Nice to have you with us.
DORE GOLD: It's a pleasure, thank you very much.
ELDAR: Nice to be with you.
CONAN: And we heard from Akiva Eldar before his phone problems cropped up that he thought the only way ahead now is a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. Frankly, that doesn't seem in prospect.
GOLD: I think we've got to separate out these issues. I know there's a tendency to put together Turkey, Egypt and what's going to happen at the United Nations in another week, week and a half.
The whole phenomenon of Turkey's policy is something that's been developing for a number of years. You know, in 2006, after the Palestinian elections, Prime Minister Erdogan surprised the world and invited Khalid Meshal, the political head of the Hamas from Damascus to come to Ankara.
The fact that he was willing to see the head of Hamas, which is defined as an international terrorist organization, not only by Israel, not only by the United States, but the European Union, surprised people. But in fact, Erdogan's government warmed up to the entire network of the Muslim Brotherhood so that what you had from 2006 until the famous Turkish flotilla were repeated conferences of the Muslim Brotherhood from all over the Middle East in Turkey, not in Qatar, not in Saudi Arabia but in Turkey.
So there's been a change going on there for a while, and even today's visit, in today's visit to Egypt, you saw when Erdogan arrived, you saw members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood holding up signs. Some of the signs said things like we welcome Erdogan, we're looking forward to a caliphate from Egypt up to Turkey.
So there's something going on that's much more fundamental than the whole issue of the Turkish flotilla, the whole issue of apologies and disagreements with Israel, the Palmer Commission of the U.N. This is a much bigger story.
With respect to Egypt, we have a whole different set of considerations of what's going on there. The Egyptians are disturbed by the attack on the Israeli embassy. The Egyptian government is disturbed by the rise of al-Qaida and other terrorist cells in Sinai and have a joint interest with Israel in stabilizing the situation there.
So it's very different from Turkey, and hopefully we can build, quietly, in our contacts with the Egyptians, cooperative relations to help deal with this problem.
CONAN: Yet we're told, Dore Gold, that Egypt only sent forces to intervene at the Israeli embassy to stop the mob after pressure from the United States.
GOLD: Well, there was a problem with communication, and the United States came in and assisted with communication. They had half-tracks and troops there that didn't act perhaps early enough. But I don't want to get into criticizing how the Egyptians handle the tactics of protecting embassies.
The protection of embassies is part of the peace treaty. The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is something the Egyptian government is committed to, and I wouldn't want to raise question marks over whether Egypt's committed to a peace with Israel. It is, and we expect that they'll protect our embassies.
By the way, they have to protect all Western embassies because everybody has to be concerned that we shouldn't have developing, a situation like you had in Tehran in 1979, where the U.S. embassy was grabbed by Khomeini's men.
So I think they're committed to not letting that happen, and we'll work with them, and we both face the same threats: the threat of Iran and the threat of radical Islamic cells that have been growing in places like Sinai.
CONAN: And Akiva Eldar, to bring you back into the conversation, that may be true of this Egyptian government, which is the Egyptian military that was appointed by President Mubarak. There's going to be elections in Egypt.
ELDAR: Well, I want to agree with Ambassador Dore Gold, that we live in a tough neighborhood and not in Europe. Let's assume that everything he said is absolutely accurate, and the Egyptians are not nice. Now there are going to be demonstrations in Jordan in front of the Israeli embassy.
Erdogan is not a nice guy. What do we do about this? This is the question? And I think that the problem is that Israel gives them an excuse or a pretext to join forces - the Egyptians and the Turks and the Jordanian and the Muslim Brotherhood and all those bad guys - because Israel is occupying Palestinian territories for 43 years.
And this didn't start, of course, with this government, and Israel keeps expanding the settlements. You know, we are celebrating, today, the 18 years to the Oslo Agreement. I'll just give you one figure. I was there at the South Lawn of the White House when President Clinton shook hands with Yasser Arafat and late Prime Minister Rabin.
At that time, there were 110,000 settlers. Today, this number has been risen. It has tripled. Today, we have around 350,000 settlers in the West Bank, let alone, East Jerusalem. So what I am saying is that we can't have it both ways forever.
We - Prime Minister Netanyahu made this famous statement that he supports a two-state solution, but this is not enough. You need to start negotiating on the basis of the '67 lines. And let me tell you, the Palestinians are offering the U.N. to vote on two chapters in the end of this month.
One is to upgrade them to at least a non-member state by the General Assembly. But then they are offering to resume the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian state. They know - I met with President Abbas, and he made it very clear that he knows that nothing is going to change on the ground the day after the U.N. will vote in favor of a Palestinian state, recognizing a Palestinian state.
As long as the settlements are there, and as long as the Israeli army is deployed, and 60 percent of the West Bank, which is Area C according to this Oslo Agreement, is off-limits for Palestinians to expand any settlements, this is the reality on the ground, and this is not going to be changed until we reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
But as I said before, we can't start from scratch. Now...
CONAN: I just want to interrupt you because I wanted to get some listeners involved in the conversation, if you don't mind.
GOLD: I would like to have a chance to respond.
CONAN: And I figured you would, but can we get to that in the course of the conversation?
GOLD: No problem.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get to Anna(ph). Anna's with us from Parkersburg in West Virginia.
ANNA (Caller): Yeah, I've read that U.N. report about the killings on the Mavi Maramara, and I encourage others to go to the U.N. website and read that report, as well. And when they said that there was excessive force, I mean, when you read about the killings of those nine individuals, one of them being a U.S. citizen, I forget his name, Dogon is his last name, you know, they really - it really sounds like just flat-out executions.
So if Israel apologized for those killings/execution, would that change things? And then I wanted to ask Dore Gold: I mean, during each administration, we have witnessed as American citizens the illegal settlements and the illegal housing in East Jerusalem expand. If Israel really wants peace, why do they continue to do this?
CONAN: Dore Gold?
GOLD: These are two big questions, but let's start with the Mavi Maramara and the Palmer Report. You know, what the Palmer Report importantly established was that Israel had a legal right to put in a naval blockade. Naval blockades are not antiquated forms of self-protection from the times of Lord Nelson and the British Navy. They're used presently. They were used by NATO in the area of Yugoslavia. They've been used by the United Nations Security Council against Iraq.
We have an objective problem, and the problem is there are huge Iranian weapon ships that come into the Mediterranean that want to deliver long-range missiles to the Gaza Strip, not little rockets that go through the tunnels - huge, big missiles, like the Fajr-3, the Fajr-5. So we have a legal right to put in a blockade. Now, what happens when somebody runs a blockade? They want to break the blockade. It was clear that when the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, tried to run our blockade, that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The reporter for the Washington Post, who have just been in Gaza a few days before, said on the main street of Gaza City, you saw pharmacies going up that looked like a Rite Aid in Washington, D.C. There were - Reuters in fact photographed the markets in Gaza. They were full of fresh fruit. So there was this I would say misrepresentation of what was going on that somehow Gaza was in need of basic humanitarian aid. It wasn't. The purpose of the Mavi Marmara was to break our blockade, which would allow Iranian ships to deliver weapons when the firing of rockets at Israel was a regular occurrence.
Now, I think Israel - the prime minister himself said he expressed regret for the loss of life. But, the self-defense of Israel, the use of a blockade is something that was legitimate. And what you have here has nothing to do with the humanitarian situation in Gaza. What you have here is an attempt by Prime Minister Erdogan to use a humanitarian relief excuse to break Israel's self-protection along the coast of the Gaza Strip.
Hopefully, we want to restore relations with Turkey. We want things to improve. We have to understand what occurred, and we have to move forward. But, you know, Israel certainly didn't execute anybody. Our soldiers boarded the ship, and those soldiers were attacked. Two of the soldiers were shot by firearms, and they have a right of self-defense in trying to prevent this ship from breaking the blockade. In terms of settlements...
CONAN: Can we - can I just interrupt? And we'll get to that point in a moment. I hear Akiva Eldar trying to get in.
ELDAR: Yeah. What I would like to add is that, you know, this is just another accident that happens if you don't drive properly or if you drink and drive. And the problem is that you drink, and you keep drinking more and more territories. And I believe that - and if you go, you'll go back to the Oslo agreement and before that to Madrid where, you know, Prime Minister Shamir and Bebe Netanyahu as deputy foreign minister were presented the Israeli government in '91 in Madrid.
Once Israel looks serious at genuinely negotiating peace with the Arabs and giving another try to put an end to the conflict, I think that this accident are being treated differently. And we just play right into the hands of the Hamas, the Islamic jihad and embarrass our Palestinian partners who are interested in the two-state solution headed by President Abbas.
CONAN: We're talking with Akiva Eldar, who's with Ha'aretz, a newspaper in Jerusalem - excuse me, in Tel Aviv, and also with us is Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Dore Gold, on the question that a lot of people will have questions about, and that is on the expansion of the settlement. If Israel wants peace, why does it continue to expand the settlement?
GOLD: Well, let me tell you something about the Oslo agreements. And I'm going to share with you a not-well-known secret. There is not a single clause in the Oslo agreement that says the Palestinians must stop building in their villages, or that Israel must stop building inside its settlements. You know, in the WikiLeaks papers and in the Al-Jazeera papers, you have there the statements made by Saeb Erekat saying, you know, Israel, all you have to annex is 1.9 percent of the West Bank because that's the amount of territory that your settlements take up.
So if you're allowing an Israeli to build a house next to his house inside of a settlement you're not going outside the line of building, you're talking about a tiny amount of land. It doesn't compromise anything. This is an overstated subject because the amount of land is simply very, very small. In the meantime, Palestinians are building in their areas as well. And in any case, what will decide...
ELDAR: And they also built...
GOLD: ...the borders...
ELDAR: (unintelligible) you are out, Dore Gold?
GOLD: What will decide the future borders of Israel will be a negotiation, an agreement. Israel removed 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip. Once it did that, the settlement - the location of a particular house or building or a row of houses is not going to hold up an agreement.
CONAN: And as we look forward, though, Israel's political isolation, as you say you want to work quietly with the authorities in Cairo. Those authorities will change after elections there. And given the popular opinion, I'm not sure that a pro-Israel policy is going to be adopted by the next government in Cairo, but we're going to have to wait and see for that. Yet does not Israel now rely more than ever on the United States?
GOLD: We've always have a close relationship with the United States in which - based on shared values, based on close security and the intelligence cooperation against joint threats to us. That's the way it's been since, I would say, the late 1960s, and it will continue to be that way. Now, unfortunately, both the United States and Israel are facing new challenges. Do you think in Washington, anybody likes Erdogan's policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and all his declarations?
I'm sure it's not well received. And I think there is a nervousness among our American partners about where the Middle East is going with the Arab Spring. We hope it goes to democracy and responsible government, an accountable government. And you know what?
CONAN: And I'm just - I have to stop you there...
GOLD: ...(unintelligible) countries...
CONAN: And I'm going to have to...
GOLD: ...radical Islamists will come to power, and we'll both have to deal with that question.
CONAN: Akiva Eldar, I wanted to give you the last minute.
ELDAR: Yeah. First of all, as I said before, 60 percent of the occupied territories of the West Bank are off limits, area C according to Oslo B, the interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinian, so what Dore Gold is saying is completely untrue. The other thing is I will remind you that after the First Gulf War, President Bush Sr. was able to form a coalition of both Israel and the pro-American, the pragmatic Arab countries. And I think this is what we have to do now instead of just scoring points and blaming our neighbors.
We have to keep in mind that Mubarak is not there any more. Assad is going to kiss us goodbye as well as Gadhafi. And we have to take into consideration the Arab street, and there is a Jewish solidarity whenever a Jew is beaten up or humiliated or persecuted. We Israelis know how to raise our voice. (Unintelligible)...
CONAN: Akiva Eldar, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there, but we thank you very much for your time. He's, of course, with Ha'aretz. We also spoke with Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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