Arts, Culture & Media

Israel's Growing Isolation in the Middle East

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made it official on Friday. He vowed to seek formal recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations next week. "As a Palestinian delegation we take with us all the suffering and hope of our people to achieve this objective and to end the historic grievances," he said.

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The move is strongly opposed by Israel and the United States.

It also highlights what Israelis see as their growing isolation in the region. For the first time in decades, the Jewish state finds itself without a single dependable friend in the Middle East.

Israel has faced plenty of hostility from its neighbors. But for nearly all of its 63-year history, the Jewish state could count on decent relations with at least one of the major powers in the Middle East. That's what makes the political reality facing Israel today so grim.

"It's the lowest point diplomatically we ever had in the region. Ever," said Alon Liel. Liel spent more than 30 years with Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to both Turkey and South Africa. He said Israel is facing unprecedented isolation.

"We always had a strategic partner, sometimes two," Liel said. "Don't forget we had Iran for 20 years. Then we had Turkey for many years. Sometimes, we had Iran and Turkey together. And then we had Egypt and Turkey together. These are important countries in the region. And we are a Jewish state and they are big, important, Muslim states. And we worked it out. Now, we don't have any of the three as an ally, even not as a friend."

Liel is especially bitter over the loss of Turkey as a strategic partner. Because he thinks it didn't have to be this way. Last summer, Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists on a ship headed for Gaza. Turkey demanded an apology. Israel's government refused. Early this month, Turkey kicked Israel's ambassador out of its capital and downgraded the diplomatic relationship.

Liel said the episode reflects a shift in Israeli diplomacy under the current government. There's been a move away from traditional partners in the region like Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, toward new partners, including Greece, Cyprus and Romania. Which he called ridiculous.

"Because for many, many years, one of the main leading argument of the Arabs was, 'you don't belong here.'"

Liel said Israel spent years cultivating relationships with its regional neighbors to disprove that. He remembered attending a political conference in Jordan back in 1995, days before Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

"Everybody was there. The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the whole Middle East was there, Lebanese," he said. "It was unbelievable. We were surrounded by people with khaffiyas, and by sheiks."

Liel said these regional relationships were never ironclad. They depended on what the Israelis were doing to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. But international relations professor Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University looked at Israel's diplomatic losses differently. He said Israel's ties with its regional neighbors have generally been driven by their domestic politics.

"Particularly the rise of Islamist political forces," Heller said. "The loss of Iran as a partner was not the result of anything that happened in the bilateral relationship between Israel and Iran. It was the Islamic revolution. And similarly the same could be said about Israel and Turkey. It's the rise to power of a cautious or pragmatic Islamist power there."

As for the linkage between Israel's relations with Turkey and the peace process with the Palestinians, Heller said that's not so clear cut either. He said the real driving force has been the ambitions of the Turks at any particular time.

"Whenever they were focused primarily on orienting Turkey towards the west and integrating Turkey with the western world, then relations with Israel were pretty good," Heller said. "And whenever there was some flirtation or attempt to re-orient in another direction, then one of the casualties of that was the Turkish-Israeli relationship.

Heller believes Israel's behavior might have had some effect on the margins. But for the foreseeable future, he said, Turkey is lost diplomatically.