by Benny Morris
"Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it [a reference to the Medieval Crusader kingdoms]," states the 1988 Charter or constitution of the fundamentalist Muslim Hamas, the organization that rules the Gaza Strip and may well command the support of the majority of Palestinians.
And, to be sure, Islam these past two weeks has definitely been closing in on the Jewish state, with Israel's ambassadors in the two major Middle Eastern states with which it had good relations, Turkey and Egypt, being sent packing.
Of course, the circumstances of each case were different (history has that ability to give us infinite variety). In Ankara , the government expelled the ambassador because of Israel's refusal to apologize for implementing its blockade of the Gaza Strip, from which, over the past decade, masses of rockets have been fired on the country's southern towns and villages; in Cairo, it was the mob, unleashed by the so-called “Arab Spring,” and uncurbed by the country's interim military government, which overran and vandalized the Israeli Embassy and forced Israel's diplomats and their families to flee for their lives.
But in both cases, it was Islam which gradually eroded secularism and brought down pragmatic, prudent governments in the region, which drove the diplomats from their posts—much as Islam, in Hamas's take, wishes to do, and will do, to Israel itself, the ultimate alien and other in "their" Middle East.
For months, captivated by the spectacle of falling dictators and English-proficient spokesmen avowing democracy,Westerners deluded themselves into believing that the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world were presaging a new birth of freedom. And over the span of a century or two, who knows? maybe democracy will evolve in Cairo and Sana and Damascus (though I wouldn't bet on it). But in the short and medium terms, in our lifetimes, what this tumult is certainly delivering is the ruination of responsible government, chaos—as in the streets of Cairo on Friday night, when the mobs, apart from destroying the Israeli Embassy, ransacked the interior ministry and assorted police stations—and a surge in, and possibly, finally, a takeover by, radical Islamism. And, at the end of the tunnel, possibly a resumption of war.
After Friday night's events, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu vowed that, despite the attack on its diplomatic mission, Israel would cleave to its peace with Egypt. (A few days earlier, he said something similar, wiping the spit from his face, about trying to maintain cordial relations with Ankara.)
But Israel's wishes may prove insufficient. For decades, the Islamists of Egypt, represented chiefly by the Muslim Brotherhood (the parent organization of the Palestinian Hamas) but also by more extreme Salafists (such as those that gave us Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden's successor as head of al-Qaeda), have preached the necessity of Israel's destruction and the annulment of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979, alongside the uprooting of all Western influence and values from the lands of Islam (vide the anti-Semitic, anti-Western rants of the late Said Qutb, the chief ideologue of the Brotherhood).
Peace between Egypt and Israel has been steadily unraveling these past few months. Last month, it was the attack by Islamist and Palestinian gunmen from Egyptian Sinai against Israeli traffic north of Eilat, which the Egyptian media almost uniformly (and mendaciously) described subsequently as an Israeli treaty-violating assault on Egyptians and Egyptian soil; this week, it was a weak and vacillating Egyptian regime (its head, General Tantawi, during Friday night's fiery events played possum, simply refusing to take calls from Israeli and American leaders) which bowed before the anger of the "Street" and gave the mob its head (though, at the last minute, under pressure from President Obama, the military at last sent in commandos and rescued the six Israeli guards from the embattled embassy premises).
The Israeli ambassador may yet return to Cairo and the embassy may yet resume normal operations—after all, Washington will exert pressure, and the Egyptian military is dependent on American grants and spare parts. But in a few months' time the army is due to step aside and the Egyptian populace—educated on the knees of Islam and, since 1948, on unremitting hatred of Israel—will go to the polls and elect a civilian government. The likely result will be the installation of an Islamist government or, at the the least, a coalition government with a major Islamist component. The peace treaty with Israel will then undergo a slow or abrupt death, and my guess is that much of Egypt's secular middle class will run for the hills (meaning will try to emigrate to North America and Europe). But Israel cannot emigrate, and it will have no choice but to hunker down and fortify its formerly peaceful border with Egypt.
Unfortunately, the events in Egypt are part of a wider pattern, one episode feeding the next. In large measure it was set in train in 1979 with the Islamist Revolution's victory in Teheran (ironically, the year Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty). Since then, most of the anti-Israel fury and operations in the region have been orchestrated if not supported in one way or another by Teheran.
In Tahrir Square, during Friday's mass demonstration that ended with the "conquest" of the Israeli Embassy offices, one banner read: "Turkey, a model of manliness." The reference was to Ankara's diplomatic initiative of the previous week, the downgrading of relations with Israel to the level of second secretaries (effectively, the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador) and suspension of all defense contracts between the two countries.
The Turks presented this as a result of Israel's refusal to apologize for the armed seizure of the Gaza-blockade-running Turkish flotilla last year. In fact, the gradual dissolution of Turkey's ties with Israel has been in the cards since the Turkish Justice and Development Party under Recep Erdogan took power in 2002. But the Turks played a careful, slow game so as not to rile Washington and the EU. Now that Erdogan has cowed his internal opposition and the Turkish army brass and stabilized Turkey's international position (while taking the measure of President Obama's outreach to the Muslim world), Ankara's Islamists have let their deep anti-Israeli sentiments out of the bag. Last week Erdogan threatened to send Turkish warships to accompany a new blockade-running, Gaza-bound flotilla.
A complete severing of Turkish-Israeli and Egyptian-Israeli relations is only a matter of time. The processes may well be triggered by the coming weeks' prospective Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence and the violece that will inevitably accompany it. And the likelihood is that these events will not be restricted to Palestine, Egypt and Turkey: the thrust and weight of Islam and the Arab "Street" will likely lead to wider sanctions against Israel around the Middle East.
The National Interest