Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) — The Middle East is plunging toward crisis. The early promise of Tahrir Square has been supplanted by dismay that the Egyptian authorities — such as they are — allowed mobs to lay siege to the Israeli embassy in Cairo this past weekend.
Not long ago, Turkey and Israel were strategic partners. Now, relations between those two key U.S. allies are in ruins. When a recent United Nations report on the deadly confrontation between the Israeli military and a flotilla of Gaza-bound activists that sparked this crisis largely exonerated Israel, Turkey reacted by threatening to send warships to the eastern Mediterranean.
And the Jewish state faces a miserable month at the UN, where the Palestinians, who have refused to meet Israel at the negotiating table, are planning to seek recognition as an independent state, with potentially catastrophic consequences for both sides.
“As the months of Arab Spring have turned autumnal, Israel has increasingly become a target of public outrage,” the New York Times’ Ethan Bronner wrote this weekend from Jerusalem. “Some here say Israel is again being made a scapegoat, this time for unfulfilled revolutionary promises. But there is another interpretation, and it is the predominant one abroad — Muslims, Arabs and indeed many around the globe believe Israel is unjustly occupying Palestinian territories, and they are furious at Israel for it.”
The first interpretation — that Israel is a scapegoat for the failures of the Arab Spring (and many other previous ailments afflicting the Middle East) — is self-evidently true. The attack on the Israeli embassy grew from a rally in Tahrir Square called “Correcting the Path.” Its organizers meant to pressure the country’s military rulers to accelerate political changes. It is easier to burn an Israeli flag than reform the Egyptian government. And Israel, of course, did not cause Egypt’s economic woes, nor is it responsible for violence in Syria, poverty in Algeria or illiteracy in Yemen.
The second interpretation of recent events — that Arabs and Muslims are furious at Israel for occupying Palestinian territory — is superficially true, but it neglects to take into account a relevant and complicating fact: Israel’s crises with Egypt and Turkey are both rooted in an Israeli decision to relinquish Palestinian territory.
Here is a bit of recent, though apparently forgotten, history: In 2003, the then-prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, announced that Israel would unilaterally withdraw about 8,500 settlers from its 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip, and pull out its army as well. The territory would be handed over, in its entirety, to the Palestinian Authority.
In the summer of 2005, he executed the plan, ordering the Israeli army to expel the settlers. It would have been better, for many reasons, for Sharon to have negotiated this handover directly with his adversaries. But the fact remains that Israel gave the Palestinians of Gaza what they claimed they wanted: their territory, which they said would become part of their independent state.
How did Gazans respond? First, looters destroyed the vast settlement greenhouses that could have formed the basis of a new Gaza economy. Then, voters elected into power Hamas, a terrorist organization devoted to the annihilation of Israel. Gaza quickly became a launching pad for rocket attacks against Israeli towns.
In response, Israel blockaded Gaza to keep weapons from reaching its enemies. It was this blockade that pro-Hamas activists, many of them from Turkey, were trying to breach when their flotilla was boarded by Israeli forces last year. Nine activists were killed. The flotilla raid, and the subsequent collapse of relations between the two countries, can be traced in large part to Sharon’s decision.
Gaza and Sinai
In Egypt, the story is similar. The attack on the embassy in Cairo — which forced Israel to send air force planes to Egypt to rescue its diplomatic personnel — was part of an angry reaction to the accidental killing of at least three Egyptian soldiers last month. (The exact number killed is disputed.) The problem began when a group of terrorists, including some reportedly from Gaza, crossed the Israeli border from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and killed eight Israelis. The Israeli security forces, in pursuit of the terrorists, mistakenly killed the Egyptian soldiers. The Israeli government later formally expressed regret for the incident.
Most of the protesters in Cairo cared not at all about a terrorist invasion of Israel from Egyptian territory, or about the murdered Israelis themselves. Their only concern was what they saw as Israel’s criminal response.
Why, after decades of quiet, has the Egypt-Israel border become so tumultuous? Two reasons: The interim Egyptian government has lost control over the Sinai since the revolution, and Gaza, which borders the Sinai, has been transformed by Hamas into a weapons-importing and terror-exporting mini-state. And how did this come about? Sharon brought this about, by ceding Gaza to the Palestinians.
This is not, by the way, an argument against territorial compromise. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, needs to find a creative solution to the problem posed by his country’s continued occupation of much of the West Bank. But that job is made much more difficult by Israel’s enemies, who choose to ignore Israel’s last attempt at giving up territory. And it is made more difficult still by Israeli voters, who, when confronted by demands for further territorial compromise, look to Gaza and say, “Not so fast.”
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at email@example.com.