August 28, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
A recent event in the Middle East has gone almost un-noticed in our news media. Israel that has dealt with its neighbours for decades with contempt and has got its way as it wanted expressed regret for the 3 Egyptian soldiers who were killed by one of its warplanes that was retaliating against Palestinian militants who had killed seven Israeli soldiers on the Israel-Egypt border near Gaza.
The regret was extraordinary because it came after Israel had been expressing serious concerns over the past few months that Egypt was lax against militants on its side of the Israel-Egypt border. A series of unexplained bombings in this area where Israel’s has its vital gas pipelines crucial to its energy needs had heightened its concerns. In fact, Israel at first accused Egypt of complicity in allowing the militants to cross over to Israel and mount the attacks that killed the 7 Israeli soldiers.
The regret came after a series of diplomatic moves by Egypt. It announced that it would recall its Ambassador to Israel and summoned the Israeli Ambassador in Cairo for a strong demarche. The tension, the worst since the Camp David Accord of 1979 through which Egypt recognized Israel, had western diplomats scrambling to diffuse a crisis in Egypt-Israel relations that have been showing signs of breaking in the seams after the departure of President Mubarak, relations that have been crucial to giving Israel the upper hand on the Palestinian issue.
President Mubarak in fact played a dubious role during his entire tenure as Egypt’s President since 1981. In return for huge military aid and support for his regime by the United States, President Mubarak paid lip service to the Palestinian cause while behind the scene; he gave support to Israel to strengthen its occupation of Palestine. When the militant Hamas took control of the landlocked Gaza strip in 2006, Israel and Egypt imposed a total blockade on Gaza. The blockade subjected Gaza’s half a million citizens to inhuman hardships. The Egypt-Gaza border is literally the soft underbelly for Israel’s security needs and Egypt’s support was invaluable to Israel during the Mubarak era.
Thus when President Mubarak was fighting for his political survival, Israel’s concerns for him and his regime were expressed openly and desperately. Israel urged and encouraged President Mubarak to hang on to power and not to be discouraged or frustrated by US decision to withdraw military aid to his regime. In fact, Israel promised to make up the shortfall of aid to Egypt that the US had threatened to withhold.
When Mubarak fell, the hope in rest of the world was that Israel would finally see the need to compromise on the Palestinian cause in accordance with international law and the numerous resolutions that have been adopted at the UN that Israel has rejected with contempt. As the Arab Spring lingered in Egypt without showing positive results either in terms of Egypt’s democratization or Palestinian rights, a great deal of frustration was starting to creep in among Egyptians
The deaths of the 3 Egyptian soldiers leading Israel to regret have revived that hope; that the Arab Spring would just not end dictatorships in the Arab world by bring the first rays of a new dawn of democracy but also result in the Palestinian issue being resolved in accordance with the principles of international law and justice. Prior to this unprecedented Israeli regret, the US had but lost all interests in the Palestinian issue. President Obama’s promise made in his Cairo speech of June, 2009, was subsumed in his domestic agenda and the loss of Congress to the Republicans in the mid-term polls last year. The Palestinian peace talks were allowed to stall nearly a year ago after a short period of negotiations because the US could not muster the courage to tell Israel to stop the illegal settlements
In frustration, his Middle East envoy Senator George Mitchell resigned. President Obama did not even feel the need of appointing a new full time new envoy in his place. That sent a depressing signal to those in the Muslim world who were eagerly looking up to President Obama as the President who had the moral courage to do the right thing for the injustices that the Palestinians have been handed over the last many decades, losing their own land to foreign occupation.
The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, felled President Mubarak in Egypt, and put the Syrian dictator Bashir Asad and the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi (who has since fallen after 40 years in power) under the spanner to renew hopes for Palestine . The Palestinians were hopeful that the US would take the messages in the Arab streets that have united Hamas and Fattah in Palestine. It did not. The US made no serious attempt to bring Israel to the negotiating table. Instead, President Obama and the US Congress warmly received Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington in May this year and assured him that he has no reason to worry about the Arab Spring.
It is in the context of these frustrating developments that Israel’s apology for killing the Egyptian soldiers assumes great significance. The words of apology came from the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who had initially laid the blame on the Egyptians. The Egyptian cabinet rejected the apology, taking note of the mood in the country that is overtly anti-Israeli with Mubarak’s security not in the scene to subvert the public mood. The transitional Egyptian Government is also in search of some legitimacy to help the transition to the elected post-Mubarak regime.
Egypt’s stance over the deaths has underscored a few positives for Palestine. First, henceforth, Israel cannot expect anymore a supportive role from Egypt on the Palestinian issue. Second, the Egyptian government can no longer play a role on the Palestinian issue that was played by President Mubarak which was public support for Palestine but effective support for Israel behind the scene. Finally, governments in the Middle East would henceforth think twice before playing a role that President Mubarak had played.
In other words, public mood in the Arab streets and the stance of the Arab governments on the Palestinian issue are now crystallizing towards that unity the lack of which Israel had exploited successfully against the Palestinians. It is this changing stance in Middle East among the governments and the public mood in Arab streets that the US needs to focus on to be in touch with reality. Despite spending trillions of US dollars in Iraq, US popularity in Iraq and the region has not inched upward a bit. It continues to be as unpopular among the Arabs as ever. Governments there may no longer find it possible to support US-Israel cause anymore. The Israeli regret points towards that; a realization by Israel that the Arab Spring has put it in a very difficult spot where it may be finally forced to negotiate a settlement on Palestine even without US urging.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and Egypt.