Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 August 2011
Issue No. 1062
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Israel caves to new Middle East order

While it might attempt to spin the new reality of the new Middle East, events as a whole do not serve Israel, writes Khaled Amayreh in the occupied Palestinian territories

Fearing regional and international isolation, and especially worried about a negative aggravating crisis with Egypt, a visibly frustrated Israeli government agreed rather begrudgingly to a ceasefire that came too soon with the Gaza-based Hamas government, following last week's cross-border resistance attack near the southernmost Israeli town of Eilat.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly resisted calls by more extremist members of his cabinet for carrying out massive attacks on the Gaza Strip, arguing that "Israel won't be dragged into places it doesn't want to be."

Citing prospects of "a worsening crisis with Egypt," Netanyahu argued that launching more attacks on Gaza, which could leave more gruesome TV images of Palestinian casualties, would be "inadvisable".

Netanyahu's uncharacteristically restrained behaviour came after he received several messages from the Israeli ambassador in Cairo, stating that the general atmosphere in Egypt was decidedly anti- Israeli and that any escalation of violence with the Palestinians would near certainly further aggravate volatile relations with Egypt.

Moreover, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry made it clear to Israel through diplomatic channels that Israel was now dealing with a "new Egypt" and that what was possible under the Mubarak regime -- ie tolerating Israeli excesses -- was no longer possible.

The Israeli army did kill as many as 15 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during more than 27 hours of sustained air strikes. Several civilians, including children, were among the victims who also included a number of resistance commanders. Many others, mostly civilians, were wounded, some seriously.

However, the relatively small number of Palestinian victims didn't satisfy the more hawkish members of the Israeli cabinet such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who urged the government to bomb Gaza to the ground. Lieberman criticised Netanyahu's "reluctant" policy towards the Palestinians.

"Even if we offer the Palestinians Tel Aviv and a retreat to the 1947 borders, they will find a reason not to sign a peace agreement with us." Earlier, the bellicose Israeli foreign minister personally attacked Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, saying the PA was an illegitimate government that doesn't conduct elections, and "we shouldn't reach agreement with them."

Turkish leaders, too, received a share of Lieberman's badmouthing. He called Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu liars, saying Israel wouldn't apologise for murdering nine Turkish citizens during the Israeli assault on a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza last May.

Netanyahu hit back at Lieberman, telling him that only the prime minister decides Israeli policies.

A Netanyahu aide, quoted by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, argued that the situation facing Israel now was drastically different from that which prevailed in 2008-09 when Israel launched its all- out devastating campaign against the Gaza Strip, killing and maiming thousands of Palestinians and destroying much of the civilian infrastructure in the coastal enclave.

"There is a sensitive situation in the Middle East, which is one big boiling pot; there is the international arena, there is the Palestinian move in the United Nations in September, we have to pick our way very carefully," the aide said.

There is little doubt that the "new reality" in Egypt in particular is having a clear restraining impact on Israeli behaviour towards the Palestinians. One Israeli newspaper quoted former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa as saying that "Israel must be aware that the days when it kills our children without getting a strong, appropriate response are gone forever."

Moussa's remarks are likely to reflect public opinion throughout Egypt, as thousands of Egyptians have been demonstrating against Israel, demanding stringent action against the Zionist entity for murdering five Egyptian border guards near Eilat last week.

More to the point, Israel is especially worried that "this is only the beginning" and that the upcoming Egyptian elections will bring to the fore in Cairo a decidedly anti-Israeli leadership that would hold Israel to account every time it behaves characteristically.

Israel is not only worried about the "new Middle East" where it faces mounting isolation. Israel is also worried about its eroding deterrence vis-à-vis the Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip.

The "measured" Israeli response to the Eilat incident was by no means the kind of response Israelis had been used to seeing. This reduced deterrence is likely to embolden the PA leadership in Ramallah to ignore Israeli and American warnings against seeking UN recognition of a prospective Palestinian state in September.

Interestingly, the PA didn't explicitly condemn the Eilat incident as it would have done in different circumstances. The Eilat incident and the uncomfortable position facing Israel, especially at the regional level, prompted some Israeli writers to draw comparisons dating back to the 1973 wars, when then-Israeli prime minister Golda Meir shut her ears to the late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat.

Writing in Haaretz under the title "When Israeli arrogance meets Arab honour", Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar reminded everyone that the thousands of victims of the October war of 1973 did not succeed in weaning Israelis off the curse of arrogance. "It sticks its nose up so high that it blocks the view around the corner -- until the next violent clash."

Eldar pointed out that millions of Arabs throughout the Middle East, including Egypt, were no longer willing to stomach Israeli arrogance. "This time, the Israeli arrogance is encountering the honour of an Arab street that is undermining the old order. When they see on television Israeli soldiers fighting Arab children on the day after the declaration of a Palestinian state in the UN, the dissidents in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria and Libya will not be cracking sunflower seeds in front of the television. I hope I will be proven wrong."

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