by Rahul Ravi
The 1967 War (aka the War with Many Names that Lasted 6 Days) has long been characterized as a war of mistakes. The Israelis preemptively attacked the Egyptian air force on the notion, some say mistaken, that Egypt was going to attack at any moment (for more on this see Michael Oren’s excellent work Six Days of War). This mistake was due to the spiral of hostilities that arose out of Arab leaders’ eagerness to out-Arab each other. In other words, they were so preoccupied with bashing Israel and threatening it in order to shore up their Pan-Arab credentials, that they actually convinced Tel-Aviv an attack was imminent.
This is what came to mind while reading a recent New York Times piece on the strained relations between Israel and Turkey. While Israel might not necessarily go on a diplomatic offensive against its neighbors, the current populate tone encompassing the Middle East might force the Arab nations to be harsher on Israel. This was expected by many analysts and feared by Israel itself. However, the manifestations of anti-Israeli sentiment are strange. If popular angst over Israel is the cornerstone of any good Arab/Muslim society, then why have Middle Eastern nations sought excuses or reasons for recent diplomatic actions? While Egypt had a legitimate reason to recall their ambassador over the killing of three Egyptian troops, the question remains: would they have done the same thing had Mubarak been in power? In other words did the generals capitulate to popular disdain for Israel in the decision to recall their ambassador from Tel Aviv and was death of the troops a catalyst? A former Egyptian official offered his view:
Mohamed Bassiouni, a former Egyptian ambassador to Israel, called the episode a lesson to Israel about the new politics of a more democratic Egypt, where the ruling military council and aspiring political candidates are eager to stay in step.
This new populism has consequences far beyond local politics. I would argue that Turkey’s decision to declare Israel’s ambassador persona non grata is a proximate, if not direct, cause of recent events. Sure, they used the excuse that Israel refused to issue an apology for the flotilla incident. But Ankara had almost a year and a half to take action on that front. Of course, simply kicking the ambassador out for no reason would be bad form, but wouldn’t it make a larger splash with the Arab public? Right now it seems like current Middle Eastern leaders are flexing their diplomatic muscles by punishing Israel diplomatically, hoping that the newly unleashed popular sentiment will look upon them favorably. Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador at the exact moment when the move would have garnered the maximum amount of popularity.
And this is why I make the analogy to the lead up to the 1967 War. Turkey and Egypt seem to be engaged in a staring contest as to who can out anti-Israel the other. And it might lead other nations to follow suit. Obviously Iran, Syria, and Lebanon play this game all the time. But what if Israel’s supposed allies start trying to put similar points on the board? Perhaps King Abdullah will take some diplomatic action to appease his population, half of which are Palestinian. Then Israel will be stuck without a big partner in the region (Egypt or Turkey) or without the largest holder of Palestinian angst (Jordan).
What does this mean for the United States? Simply put: any thought of having a partner in the region for a peace process is gone. Most leaders, in the current political environment, would loathe to put their popularity on the line by cooperating with Israel on any front, even if it means getting the Palestinians their own state. However, the good news is that Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan aren’t at risk of being radicalized by Islamists (Glenn Beck and his ilk probably beg to differ). And if there is a silver lining here it is that those three nations will use diplomatic actions to gain efficacy with the Middle Eastern public while stealing some away from the “Axis of Resistance”: Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Furthermore, without the guaranteed complicity of Amman, Cairo, and Ankara, Israel might be less aggressive in its dealings with the Palestinian Authority and more willing to talk (especially with the UN vote approaching).
So best case scenario: Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan use diplomatic leverage to pressure Israel into seeing the new realities of the Middle East and diminish the bellicose nature of the Axis of Resistance.
Worst case scenario: They go too far and Israel becomes so isolated that it feels the only way to guarantee its security is a large scale show of force in Gaza or Lebanon, further alienating itself in the process and possibly causing another Arab-Israeli war, killing the old adage that “democracies do not war with each other.”