Israel Grows More Isolated As Relationships Sour

In newly-confident Middle East, Israel is feeling increasingly isolated. David Greene talks with Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, about Israel's growing isolation, following problems with Egypt and Turkey.

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DAVID GREENE, host: As we just heard, Palestinian leaders plan to make their bid for statehood before the U.N. later this week. It's an uncomfortable question for Israel, and it comes at an uncomfortable time. Israel's feeling increasingly isolated in a newly confident Middle East.

And to talk about, we're joined in the studio by Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa Program director for the International Crisis Group.

Robert, thanks for being here again.

Dr. ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.

GREENE: Talk about the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. A push for statehood does not seem like it's something he might have always been in favor of. It seems like a bit of a personal turnaround for him.

MALLEY: And in some way, it goes against every instinct in his body and his entire political history. Here's somebody who's always believed in negotiations, always believed in a strong relationship with the U.S., always believed in reaching out to Israel, and frankly, has been quite skeptical about the U.N. and such institutions.

But I think it tells you something about how desperate Palestinians are, how lacking in alternatives they seem to have - they seem to see, that that leader has now chosen this time, when he has a very - supposedly a very friendly president in the White House, to choose that time to say now we're going to the U.N. and we're going to ask for statehood.

GREENE: And we should say the president is facing a lot of pressure. I mean, we saw an election in New York, a very Jewish district go Republican, in part because there's so many Jewish voters who don't want the president to put pressure on Israel. I mean, it could be quite a dicey time for the president to put any pressure on Israel at all.

MALLEY: This is coming at a very, very difficult, awkward time for the White House, because on the one hand, as you say, they're facing domestic constraints from some constituents who believe that the administration has been overly hostile, or at least not sympathetic enough to Israel.

And on the other hand, you have events in the Arab world that are pushing in a very different direction. And if the U.S. wants to remain quote, unquote, "on the right side of the Arab Spring," it needs to show that it is sensitive to Palestinian aspirations. And it's very hard to reconcile those two.

GREENE: If there is some sort of U.N. vote, what could this mean for the United States and its relations with all the other countries in the Middle East?

MALLEY: Well, I mean, it's quite clear that the U.S. is going to oppose whatever resolution comes up, whether it's at the Security Council or the General Assembly. And I think it's going to underscore the feeling that many Arabs have, that the U.S. is in favor of democracy in the Arab world.

But when it comes to Israel, it has a different view of Palestinian aspirations. So it's going to make it more difficult at time when the Arab world is in such flux. And as we see with events in Egypt and elsewhere, in such a very uncertain and combustible period, that's just going to make things much more difficult for the United States.

GREENE: And we mentioned this combustible period has made things very uncomfortable for Israel. Over the weekend, Israel sweeps into Cairo to evacuate its diplomatic staff after protesters mobbed the Israeli embassy there. I mean, we see protests and mobs for different reasons in that region of the world. Is this a sign of an Egypt that's now much more hostile to Israel?

MALLEY: I think it's a sign of the Arab Spring taking all kinds of directions. I think I was on this program when everything was unleashed, and I said, you know, when you're going to have more representative governments, more popular input is a good thing. But it also means that popular sentiment towards Israel in particular is going to come to the fore, and governments are going to have to take that into account. And we're seeing that.

It doesn't mean that a majority of Egyptians wanted to mob the embassy, but it means that there are people there who feel very strongly, and it's much more difficult for a weak, and not very legitimate military - leadership to take action against them.

GREENE: Have there been calls in Egypt for an end to the peace treaty with Israel?

MALLEY: Well, there always have been calls, but I think at this point, organized political movements know that that's a red line for the military, and they're not - they won't take it in that direction. But it doesn't mean that the relationship is not going to be going through a very, very difficult pass.

GREENE: In the short time that we have, Turkey expelled its Israeli ambassador after Israel refused to apologize for a deadly raid on a Turkish ship last year. What's the implication of that move?

MALLEY: Listen, I think what you're seeing in the region - and it's true of Turkey. It's true of all these countries. You're seeing two things. You're seeing domestic politics, where you have quite strong feelings about the Palestinian-Israel issue, which are shaping how leaders act. And then you have a regional scramble for power and influence, because everything is up for grabs in the Middle East.

So a country like Turkey - which was very offended by the way Israel treated it and dealt with flotilla that tried to enter into Gaza. So you have Turkey that is already angry, that has its domestic constituents that it's taking - that it wants to take into account, and that wants to gain more influence in the Arab world.

GREENE: Robert Malley is Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group. Thanks for joining us, as always.

MALLEY: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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