Israel’s Long Week, Part Three: Egyptian Misery

I had only intended to write two posts on Israel’s bad week. However, sometimes a lot happens in a week. The fallout with the Turks expanded, with Erdogan threatening to use Turkey’s military to protect aid vessels traveling to Gaza. Such an action could start a war, which would certainly jeopardize Ankara’s standing in NATO. Still, no nation likes to be threatened with military involvement by an ally. Last night’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, however, is the icing on the cake for the Jewish state’s awful week. Protests outside the embassy were not tolerated under Mubarak; now, they’ve become regular, and they’ve been growing more intense for weeks. An Egyptian man scaled the building in which the Embassy is housed and removed the Israeli flag; during his arrest, soldiers hoisted him above the crowd like a hero. In subsequent nights, protesters launched fireworks at the embassy’s windows. With a view to relieving tension, the government built a large Berlin Wall-like barricade in front of the building; a few nights ago, protesters tore it down with, among other things, a large makeshift battering ram.

In the past several hours, however, unrest crescendoed. Protesters breached the building and then the embassy itself, throwing sheaves of documents from its windows and again removing the flag from its balcony. Several embassy personnel were reportedly inside when the protesters entered, and barricaded themselves in a room; a security agent on the phone with Foreign Ministry officials reportedly asked them to tell his family of his death in person rather than by telephone should the last door fall.

Rioters outside the Israeli embassy. (Image via the Guardian)

It is shocking that Egyptian authorities allowed this to happen. Al Jazeera English reported that riots were allowed to continue for hours without police intervention; footage did not suggest that the usual row of tanks in front of the embassy building was present. I did see burning vehicles and stone-throwing crowds–it was more reminiscent of the night of January 28th or the days of barricades in Tahrir Square than of more recent unrest. It’s a troubling sign–the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces clearly does not feel its interests are best served by exercising adequate control.

Rioters near the Israeli embassy in Cairo. (Image via the Sacramento Bee)

Netanyahu has just delivered a brief TV address on last night’s events. He reported that his government was in close and sustained contact with Egyptian officials, and praised them for being extremely helpful. He suggested that their actions had prevented a disaster, and gave general praise to their response. He also thanked President Obama, who reportedly also pressured the Egyptian government. He repeatedly stated that both states wish to retain their peace treaty, and that Israel was working to restore its full presence in Cairo (affairs are apparently presently being handled by a consul) and Ankara. Coming from Netanyahu, this sounded like the speech of a beaten man–four foreign crises, plus last week’s social protests attended by about 5% of the population (for comparison, the Russian and French Revolutions involved closer to 1%), must surely have left him feeling out of maneuvering room.

The address featured a few sentences on his perception of the broader Arab Spring, which he called a regional “earthquake” of comparable magnitude to the upheavals after the First World War. He suggested that Israel must recognize that there are greater forces than themselves at play in the region, and that they must proceed “calmly” and “responsibly” while maintaining security. People have often remarked that Netanyahu was deeply influenced by his father, a historian who studied past atrocities against Jews in Europe. Normally, people suggest that this has made Netanyahu paranoid and aggressive, prone to seeing an urgent crisis where none exists. However, this genuine crisis may have shown us Netanyahu’s true reaction to pressure–he is extremely cautious, a pragmatist rather than a revisionist, a man who sees himself not as a force in history but as blown about by the forces of history.

(Part one can be found here, part two is here.)

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Israel’s Long Week, Part Three: Egyptian Misery

  1. John,

    Very interesting analysis on Israel’s strategic situation. I totally agree with what you said about PM Netanyahu. Despite all the critics and pundits who quickly label him as very hawkish and aggressive, his actions over two terms have shown he is anything but that. He is a strong leader, but often he is lamented by the right for being too soft and too impressionable. To many people on the right, he is simply to cautious, but thats domestic politics. He is a cautious leader and the fact that limited fighting has occurred under his reign shows he has smart policies or credible deterrence.

    Danny

  2. I’m not sure the lack of fighting during his tenure reflects well on him or is merely a product of the situation. Fatah/the PA is becoming more institutionalized, as is Hamas, and Hamas seems to be avoiding conflict with Israel based on how careful it is to keep the Salafist groups from acting unilaterally. Frankly, I think anyone short of Avigdor Lieberman or Danny Danon could have kept the peace.

  3. I do not know either, but he has had two terms, and so far, both terms have been void of an increase in violence. I agree with you on Gaza, Hamas is concerned about the Salafists, but I believe the Salafists rise really came to be after Cast Lead. Hamas was deterred from that war and as of yet, doesn’t want to see another operation that threatens its rule. Fatah is becoming more institutionalized, but those institutions only last as long as their donor money pours in. They are in dire straights economically.

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