While the Jewish state remains the strongest military power in the Middle East, it is increasingly isolated in a region undergoing dramatic political change. Israel needs to adopt a policy of engagement and dialogue with its neighbors in order to safeguard its position in the region.
In a recent speech to the US Congress, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected Barack Obama’s latest peace initiative, as he insisted that Israel could not return to its pre-1967 borders on the West Bank or give up sovereignty over Jerusalem. The impression of a confident, yet defiant, Israeli Prime Minster has been reinforced by Israel’s relative political stability, its robust economic growth and the Jewish state’s continued importance to America as its only dependable partner in the region. Nevertheless, recent events in the Middle East point to the Jewish state’s growing isolation and limited ability to influence events as they unfold.
The demand for more democracy in the Arab world has also strengthened the desire among the Palestinians for an independent state. For the first time in many years, the Palestinians have succeeded in creating a united front, as the two largest factions - Fatah and Hamas - have overcome their bitter rivalry to form a unity government, and are now seeking recognition for an independent state at the United Nations - a move, which Israel is desperately trying to prevent.
Outside Israel’s borders, the fall of former Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, has also had serious implications for the Jewish state. While the ruling elite in Egypt had reconciled itself to the existence of Israel, the population, at large, remained considerably more hostile. Now the new Egyptian administration has reopened the border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip and facilitated the reconciliation process between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. In effect, Israel’s efforts to defeat Hamas through a blockade of the Gaza strip and a brief war in 2009 have been nullified by political revolution in Egypt. The recent attacks in southern Israel and the closure of the Israeli embassy in Cairo have served to merely heighten the existing tensions between the two countries.
The Jewish state’s inability to influence events which impact its security has been further highlighted by Iran’s nuclear program. Despite the imposition of economic sanctions and the threat of force by both the US and Israel, Iran has refused to give up its efforts to develop nuclear power. The Israeli government has also been unable to dissuade Russia from providing Iran with nuclear expertise. Moreover, the presence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is supported by Iran, continues to pose a threat to the Jewish state.
In a further sign of Israel’s diplomatic weakness, relations with Turkey – one of the few states in the region with which the Jewish state has previously enjoyed close ties - have markedly deteriorated during the last few years. A series of diplomatic incidents and Israel’s seizure of a Turkish aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in 2010 has caused a serious rift between the two countries, and despite international efforts to isolate Iran, Turkey has been keen to increase trade with Tehran, much to Israel’s chagrin.
While Israel’s relations with Western governments remain good, its standing in Western public opinion has fallen dramatically. In this regard, criticism of Israel is now appearing from an unexpected source, as an increasing number of Jewish organizations and academics/intellectuals are voicing their opposition to the policies pursued by the Israeli government. In unprecedented scenes, Netanyahu’s speeches before AIPAC and the US Congress this past May were disrupted by Jewish hecklers protesting against Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and siege of the Gaza Strip.
What can Israel do to address these issues? A radical new approach is needed which will enable Israel to regain the diplomatic initiative in the Middle East and improve its image in the West. The Jewish state needs to offer substantial concessions to the Palestinians. This involves not only relinquishing control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but also recognizing Palestinian claims to areas that were inhabited by the Palestinians before 1948. This might not mean a return of all the Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel, but would involve an equitable sharing of resources between Israelis and Palestinians over all of Israel and Palestine. Such a shift in policy could, in turn, open the way for an improvement in relations with Egypt and Turkey and repair Israel’s tarnished image in the West. The Jewish state also needs to extend its cooperation with the Arab states in the Gulf region, which feel equally threatened by the Islamic republic, rather than simply restating the threat of a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This involves considerable political risks, but at least provides an alternative to the current situation where Israel faces growing international isolation over its policies towards the Palestinians and is locked into permanent conflict with its neighbors.
John Taylor (B.A. Modern European Studies from University College of London, M.A. War Studies from King’s College London) is an expert in Security and International Relations based in London.
This article first appeared on Atlantic-Community.org October 13, 2011.