Op-Ed Columns Opinion

Israel: The Lowest Common Denominator

By Shoshana Bryen ~

The collapse of Israel’s diplomatic relations with Egypt and Turkey has been stunning. But while the results appear the same, the differences are important.
Egypt’s problem is domestic. The February revolution had its roots in corruption and poverty, and the interim government is itself now a target of the people’s unfulfilled aspirations.  Hoping to deflect popular anger, the government has for weeks allowed (stoked?) street mobs to turn on Israel.
It was easy.
In 30+ years of “peace,” most Egyptians have had little or no contact with Israel, Israelis or Jews.  Anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism were regular features of the Mubarak government, the controlled media and the “opposition,” including the Muslim Brotherhood.  Israel is now the lowest – or maybe the singular – common denominator between the interim government and the Brotherhood. The government built a twelve-foot (ghetto?) wall around the Israeli Embassy but did not tell people not to attack the Israelis.
The damage is likely to remain confined to Egypt, although Iran likened the trashing of the Embassy to the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.  But having unleashed the djinni, it is now unclear who controls the mob and what level of government repression will be needed to keep order where order must be kept.
Turkey, on the other hand, has a booming economy and a generally popular government. Its Islamist-leaning Prime Minister denounced Israel’s President at an international meeting; invited Hamas leaders to Turkey; erected giant billboards accusing Israel of genocide in “Palestine”; denounced the UN report critical of Turkey’s handling of the May 2010 Gaza flotilla; and threatened that Turkish warships would “escort” another flotilla and sink Israeli ships in its way.
The rhetoric sounds like that in Egypt, but Turkey’s people – though Moslem – are not Arab, and many Turks know and work with Israelis as well as with the 500-year-old Turkish Jewish community. Many Turks appear puzzled that their government would shred lucrative bilateral defense, business and tourism relations on behalf of the Palestinian Arab cause, which is not their cause.
Turkey’s audience isn’t Turkey; it is the larger Moslem world that the non-Arab Ottoman Empire used to rule and wishes to influence now.
Over the past few years, Turkey had increasingly cast its lot with non-Arab Iran and Alawite (a small, Shiite minority sect) ruled Sunni Syria – neither of which is presently ascendant.  Turkey is also on a murderous rampage against Kurdish nationalists, but the Kurds are no longer wedged between a hostile Turkey and an even more hostile Saddam; they are part of the Iraqi government and an ally of the United States.  Turkey’s regional aspirations have suffered severe setbacks.  In order to restore itself to importance in the wider Arab world, the government has turned to the bogeyman, Israel.
Almost cleverly, Turkey has also sought to distance the United States from Israel by offering to host U.S. missile defense radars and host the U.S. intelligence drones that had been located in Iraq, but also provide intelligence information about Kurdish rebels to Turkey.  The U.S. should be very cautious about taking the bait – supporting Turkey’s war against the Kurds will make it harder by orders of magnitude to help Iraq stay stable, and the Turks insist that missile defense radar intelligence can’t be shared with Israel.
The United States has limited leverage with Egypt – money counts, and the Egyptian Army wants the military pipeline to continue. But given the weakness of the interim government, the American administration has little with which to “encourage” Egypt to remain a partner to Israel or to the West.
Turkey, on the other hand, is a NATO country and cherishes status as the bridge between West and East.  Bilateral American-Turkish relations are broad and deep.  It would be wise for the U.S. to impress upon Turkey the potential downside of using Israel as the lowest common denominator in its quest for regional importance.
The United States cannot have leverage everywhere – it has little in Egypt after all these years – but it has leverage in Turkey and should use it.

Shoshana Bryen has more than 30 years experience as a Middle East analyst and has been responsible for taking American military officers to Israel since 1982.

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