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Changing Middle East Leaves Israel Feeling Isolated

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Changing Middle East Leaves Israel Feeling Isolated

Middle East

Changing Middle East Leaves Israel Feeling Isolated

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Israel is facing growing international isolation. Its ties with longtime allies Turkey and Egypt are at their lowest point in decades, and the upcoming Palestinian bid for recognition at the U.N. will only add to the problems.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Jerusalem.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's an unlikely icon but he is all the rage these days in the Palestinian territories. There are pictures of Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader everywhere, even where you'd least expect them.

All your receipts, all your notepads, everything have the picture of Erdogan on them.

ABDUL RAHMAN MARRA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We love him, says grocery store owner Abdul Rahman Marra, because he loves the Palestinian people. He gestures to posters of Erdogan affixed to the walls. He stood up to Israel and defended our rights, Marra goes on. He is the best leader in the Muslim world, he says.

The scene couldn't be more different in Israel's economic capital, Tel Aviv. The restaurant called Istanbul, which serves, unsurprisingly, Turkish food, is empty, even though it's lunchtime.

ADI MANN: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Owner Adi Mann says people have stopped coming since the problems with Turkey began. They're showing their patriotism by boycotting our food, he says. It's a disaster.

Israel has always lived in a tough neighborhood, but it's now a lonely one as well. The rifts with Turkey split open after Israeli commandoes killed nine Turkish citizens who were on board a vessel trying to break Israel's sea blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. They deepened after Israel's refusal to apologize. Ankara retaliated by expelling the Israeli ambassador.

But it's not only problems with Turkey these days. In Cairo, a mob ransacked the Israeli embassy, causing Israel's ambassador and staff to be evacuated from the country. And this week, Israel's diplomatic staff in Jordan were recalled as a precautionary measure because of planned protests there.

ALON LIEL: The whole region is rejecting us. It's like a body rejecting a transplant, the world cannot ignore it, the world is worried.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alon Liel is a former Israeli diplomat and an expert on Turkey.

LIEL: Ten years ago we had relations with nine Muslim countries. The Moroccans were here, the Tunisians were here, Qatar, Oman, Mauritania - they're all gone. We stayed with the three that are now dropping us: Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. So we never had such a crisis. We never had such an extent of isolation in the Middle East since Israel was founded.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Liel says there are a number of factors at play. The Arab Spring has changed the game. Arabs now have a voice and they're using it. And what they're saying, as what happened to the Israeli Embassy in Cairo shows, is that many of them are angry at the continued Israeli occupation of Arab territory.

Secondly, Turkey is trying to increase its stature in the region by playing on those very sentiments. Also, there is no peace process to speak of. The Palestinians are now going to the United Nations to try and get recognition of statehood. While the move is mostly symbolic, it's causing a great deal of embarrassment to Israel as countries in the region and around the world rally to the Palestinian cause.

Yitzhak Levanon is Israel's ambassador to Egypt, though he now finds himself back in Tel Aviv. He says Israel is trying to understand what's happening.

YITZHAK LEVANON: Everything is challenging, you know, life there, the situation, the changes. Look, we have to bear in mind that, you know, after the revolution we are witnessing the emergence of a new Egypt, something completely different than before. And this by itself it's something which is extremely challenging.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's not just Egypt, everything in the region is in flux.

LEVANON: We are watching very closely the situation because nobody knows at this stage what will be the latest configuration of the future Middle East.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Be that as it may, back at Istanbul restaurant in Tel Aviv, the owner is betting things aren't going to get better anytime soon. He's going to change the name of his restaurant and the menu to try and lure customers back.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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