For the first time in its history, Israel finds itself without a single dependable friend in the Middle East. For decades, it maintained a cold peace with Egypt and a warm one with Turkey, but both have evaporated recently. What do the major changes occurring in the Middle East mean for the future?
In September 2011, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas formally submitted a bid for statehood at the United Nations.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Israel today finds itself more alone than ever, particularly in its regional neighborhood. As Public Radio International's The World explains: "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'" ("Israel's Growing Isolation in the Middle East," Sept. 16, 2011).
In addition to the deteriorating relationships with its closest allies, the instability of other uprisings rocking Muslim Arab states will likely lead to continually worsening relationships with Israel's neighbors. The Arab Spring is creating new realities in the Middle East that can no longer be addressed solely by diplomatic means. Even if these uprisings in places like Egypt and Libya do not result in new regimes heavily influenced by Muslim radicalism, the general public's dislike of Israel will likely push emerging leaders to be more hostile toward Israel than in the past. Where is all of this leading?
Israel's closest regional ally gone
After enjoying warm military and commercial ties with Turkey since the 1990s, relations have taken a major turn for the worse.
In May 2010, Israel protected its naval blockade of Gaza—intended to keep out weapons and more terrorists that would harm Israelis—against a flotilla billed as a humanitarian mission but intent on breaking the Israeli blockade. Israeli forces boarded a Turkish vessel, the Mavi Marmara, and in the conflict that ensued, nine Turkish activists died.
Turkey demanded an apology, but the Israeli government refused. Even a review by the United Nations, typically ill-disposed toward Israel, found that Israel acted appropriately. Nevertheless, Turkey retaliated by kicking Israel's ambassador out of its capital and downgraded the diplomatic relationship. It halted military commercial relations and considered stepping up its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
"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 arguments of the Arabs was, "you don't belong here."' Liel said Israel spent years cultivating relationships with its regional neighbors to disprove that" (ibid.).
The same article later gives what international relations professor Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University sees as the cause of Israel's diplomatic losses. "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.'"
He points to Turkish aims at a given time as determinative. "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'" (ibid.).
Heller believes that for the foreseeable future Turkey is lost diplomatically. As American influence wanes in the region, Turkey is less focused on relations with the west and is seeking to fill the growing void in the region caused by the Arab Spring.
Deteriorating relationship with Egypt
On the heels of the souring relationship with Turkey came trouble with Egypt.
There is a growing display of deep antipathy towards Israel on the Egyptian street. Israel's embassy in Cairo, the premier symbol of the relations between the two countries, was overrun by hundreds of Egyptian demonstrators, tarnishing a symbol of the two nations' 32-year-old peace. Among the signs waved were displays of swastikas and a message that translates into English as, "The gas chambers are ready" (Memri TV, Aug. 21, 2011, memritv.org/clip/en/3083.htm).
This came in the wake of an incident along the Israeli-Egyptian border in the Sinai. Terrorists crossed into Israel, killed Israeli civilians and headed back into Sinai. Israeli troops pursued them, and, with gunfire exchanged at the border, several Egyptian police there were killed in the crossfire.
This inflamed the growing anti-Israeli feelings. Some political parties now want to close the Suez Canal to the Israeli navy and block the sale of natural gas to Israel. The new Freedom and Justice Party, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, says the 1979 treaty should be "revised." Opinion polls suggest Egyptians want peace with Israel but not necessarily under the terms of the 1979 treaty.
The interim ruling military government says policy towards Israel should be left to an elected government. Parliamentary elections have been scheduled for November, and presidential elections are expected to be held in March or April 2012. Still, the embassy incident serves as a warning to Israel that a democratically elected Egyptian government may be a lot less friendly.
The former head of Israel's Shin Bet Intelligence Service recently expressed deep concerns in an Israeli radio interview: "This should be very disturbing to us…there is a question about our place in the Middle East…The Egypt that was the bedrock on which we founded our strategy has disappeared" (quoted by Joshua Mitnick, "Israel Reels Over Rifts With Allies," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2011).
The Palestinian divide
Not only have relations with Egypt and Turkey deteriorated over the last several months, but so have relations next door with the Palestinians. All nations have ideological divisions, but the Palestinians are divided over the fundamental question of their national identity.
Fatah, the party that has continued to exercise control among the 2.5 million Arabs of the West Bank despite popular support for rival Hamas, sees itself as part of a secular Arab world that is on the defensive. Hamas, strong in the West Bank and ruling over the 1.5 million Arabs of the Gaza Strip, envisions the Palestinian nation as an Islamic state forming in the context of a region-wide Islamist rising. Neither is in a position to speak authoritatively for the Palestinian people, and the issues that divide them cut to the heart of their peoples.
While the two parties came to a reconciliation agreement last spring, they have yet to work out their differences. Things came to a standstill after they failed to agree on a prime minister who would lead a unified government. They did agree to new parliamentary elections, but as of this writing presidential and parliamentary elections are yet to be scheduled.
Both groups have different views on a future relationship with Israel, as George Friedman of Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc.) explains: "Fatah has accepted, in practice, the idea of Israel's permanence as a state and the need of the Palestinians to accommodate themselves to the reality. Hamas has rejected it" ("Israeli-Arab Crisis Approaching," Stratfor.com, Aug. 22, 2011).
How Egypt's new government forms will also have an impact on both Hamas and Fatah. If Islamist forces like the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is a wing, according to its charter) come to power in Egypt, it could favor Hamas. But Friedman doesn't think this is likely. He states:
"Egypt's military has retained a remarkable degree of control, its opposition groups are divided between secular and religious elements, and the religious elements are further divided among themselves—as well as penetrated by an Egyptian security apparatus that has made war on them for years. As it stands, Egypt is not likely to evolve in a direction favorable to Hamas…
"There is a broad sense of unhappiness in Egypt over Egypt's treaty with Israel, an issue that comes to the fore when Israel and the Palestinians are fighting. As in other Arab countries, passions surge in Egypt when the Palestinians are fighting the Israelis.
"Faced with this dynamic, it will be difficult for Fatah to maintain its relationship with Israel. Indeed, Fatah could be forced to initiate an intifada (uprising), something it would greatly prefer to avoid, as this would undermine what economic development the West Bank has experienced. Israel therefore conceivably could face conflict in Gaza, a conflict along the Lebanese border and a rising in the West Bank, something it clearly knows" (ibid.).
And Israel's own Arab minority is emerging as a potential problem as well. The country's landscape is increasingly dominated by minarets and veiled women. And leaders among this minority, identifying with their Palestinian cousins outside, are vociferously calling for Israel to shed its character as a Jewish state and give Arab citizens collective minority rights and perhaps some form of autonomy.
Palestinian unilateral UN bid for statehood
In the midst of the Palestinian division, Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah's leader, formally submitted to the United Nations a bid for the recognition of an independent Palestinian state. This reversal of strategy came after two decades of on-again, off-again direct negotiations failed to establish such a state. It's not clear how long it will take the Security Council to act on it.
Many observers feel that the Palestinian unilateral effort at the United Nations is a clear rejection by the Palestinians of direct negotiations with Israel.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is negotiating for the Quartet on the Middle East—made up of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia—in an effort to establish a two-state solution through direct peace talks. He condemned the unilateral move at the UN, according to a recent article in Britain's Daily Mail ("Blair Attacks Palestinian Bid for State Recognition as 'Deeply Confrontational,'" Sept. 24, 2011).
In an apparent retaliation for the Palestinian Authority's bid for statehood, the U.S. Congress has frozen $200 million in humanitarian aid. But the Arab League has already promised that Arab nations will make up for the aid shortfall.
For now, America's position is reportedly to veto the recognition of Palestinian statehood when it comes before the Security Council. Yet an American veto or rejection could spawn waves of Palestinian violence. It would also likely harden the stances of Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. At least one Saudi leader has threatened to end the current form of his country's long-standing cooperation with the United States if there is a veto. And the country with the most to lose from such weakening of the U.S.-Saudi relationship would be Israel.
As the move at the UN was in the offing, the German magazine Der Spiegel explained the European Union's position: "If the Palestinians even just seek recognition in the General Assembly, Israel could lose the support of the European Union. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton is feverishly working to reach a compromise with the Palestinians that would give them a status as a non-member observer state [at the UN], somewhat analogous to the one enjoyed by the Vatican. The arrangement would also require the Palestinians to waive their right to bring Israeli politicians before the International Criminal Court. The majority of EU member states would most likely back this kind of solution. But there is still no deal in sight" ("Palestinian Statehood? A Litany of Diplomatic Failures in US and Europe," Sept. 20, 2011).
With or without a U.S. veto, this "Vatican option" is a plausible outcome. From Israel's point of view, it would still be rather disturbing. But this observer-state option is the emerging consensus among the Europeans.
Israel surrounded by enemies—yet rescued at last
What this all adds up to is a shifting dynamic in the Middle East that has not been seen in a generation. The state of Israel finds itself in the worst isolation in its history. As surrounding enemies become more hostile, Israel will eventually be encircled by armies, as Jesus Christ and other prophets foretold.
The EU's independent proposal reflects a growing effort to more directly influence the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Eventually, Europe will play an even more central role. Bible prophecy reveals that Europe will evolve into a final resurrection of the ancient Roman Empire. A powerful, persuasive leader will emerge in Europe who will bring about a false sense of peace. Manipulative and crafty, he will also be empowered by evil spiritual forces that can sway world governments and institutions (see Revelation:13:2-8; Daniel:8:23-25; Matthew:4:8-9; 2 Corinthians:4:4).
Jerusalem will eventually be divided again, violently traumatized, with at least part of it falling under the rule of gentile (non-Israelite) forces. "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near…For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luke:21:20-24, emphasis added).
The prophet Zechariah quoted God in referring to the same time. "For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city" (Zechariah:14:2; see also Zechariah:12:2-3; Revelation:11:1-2).
Traumatic times lie ahead for Israel, as these and other prophecies reveal. But the good news is the Jewish people and other Israelites will be reestablished in the Promised Land as Jesus Christ starts His glorious reign from Jerusalem (Hosea:1:10-11).
Sadly, man's efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and the world have proven a complete failure—as will be even more evident in the years to come. But Jesus Christ will not fail. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, "Lord, You will establish peace for us" (Isaiah:26:12).
He will do this by first powerfully assuming control over all opposing forces. Then He will lead the world into the way of righteousness and peace, giving people everywhere a change of heart through His Spirit (Isaiah:2:2-4; Joel:2:28). This transformation after Jesus' return will commence with the Jews at Jerusalem (Zechariah:12:10).
For a more complete perspective of the events prophesied to come in the Middle East and more of the history behind them, be sure to send for or download our free booklet The Middle East in Bible Prophecy.