US implores Israel to end self-imposed isolation

Young Israeli holds up the national flag before setting out on a march in show of support for Jewish settlements from the settlement of Itamar in the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank to the Palestinian city of Nablus. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Israel received a rare rebuff from a top US official who said the nation was becoming increasingly isolated and had to find means to interact with its neighbors that did not rely solely on its ability to project its military power.

­United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is currently touring the Middle East and Europe, called on Israel to resume negotiations with Palestine and find a way to mend relations with Egypt and Turkey.  

As Israel has increasingly relied on its military capability to compensate for its lack of soft power in the region, Panetta cautioned that real security guarantees will never come if the government does not find a way to reintegrate itself diplomatically in the region.  

"There's not much question in my mind that they maintain that (military) edge," Panetta said. "But the question you have to ask: Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you're isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength,” the New York Times cites.  

Panetta’s comments come at a time when Israel’s relations with its neighbors have dramatically deteriorated. Sixty-four years after UN resolution 181 called for the creation of both independent Palestinian and Israeli states, on September 23 President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas decided to call on the United Nations to fulfill its own resolutions by formally requesting membership to the U.N. that would facilitate the creation of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.  

And while Negotiators for the Quartet (UN, US, EU and Russia) have called on both sides to come up with a series of sweeping proposals over the next three months, Israel’s longstanding refusal to freeze settlement expansion has done much to undermine talks.  With an estimated 500,000 settlers currently residing in the West Bank and the predominately Muslim East Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to allow an additional 1,100 housing units to be built in the contended city was recently labeled as “counter-productive” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  

Panetta is scheduled to meet separately with Netanyahu and Abbas, as well as other top level Israeli and Palestinian officials, in an increasingly desperate attempt to kick-start talks.  For his part, Panetta said "the most important thing they can do is go to the negotiating table. That would be a tremendous signal to the world that both the Israelis and the Palestinians want to try to find a solution to these problems. I don't think they really lose anything by getting into negotiations," cites the Guardian.  

Panetta will also travel to Egypt, another nation whose ties with Israel have become increasingly fraught as a result of its overly aggressive military operations.  

After Israeli security forces wrongly killed five Egyptian border guards while pursuing gunmen on August 19, Egyptians demonstrators have attempted to storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on multiple occasions, as Egyptians authorities threatened to withdraw their envoy.  Israel’s late apology did little to appease the majority of Egypt’s young revolutionaries, many of whom are increasingly calling for sanctions and a severing of relations with Israel.  

Egypt isn’t the only traditional partner Israel experienced a dramatic falling out with in recent times.  

Relations between Turkey and Israel have reached news lows since nine Turkish citizens were killed when Israeli forces raided an Aid Flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in international waters on May 31, 2010 in what Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan described as "cause for war."

In the latest  response to Israel's unfailing refusal to apologize for the raid, last month Turkish authorities expelled the Israeli ambassador and suspended all military and trade deals.  Perhaps more alarmingly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has threatened both legal and military action to break the Gaza blockade.  Turkey has also said it will now support Palestine in their bid for UN membership.  

Turkey’s decision to go through with plans to host an American X-band radar system as a component of a NATO missile defense system shows that pragmatism has kept US-Turkey relations in tact, but much as the United States is attempting to steer Egypt’s post revolutionary course after long time alley Hosni Mubarak was swept up in the Arab Spring, Israel’s inability to find a common language with other US partners in the region has the potential of counteracting broader strategic policy concerns.  

As Defense Secretary Panetta told reporters, "It's pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that's what's happening," he said, cites the New York Times.  

Ultimately, finding a way to a two-state solution and bringing Israel back into the international fold will do as much to help the United States maintain their strategic foothold in the mercurial Arab world as it will to alleviate Israeli isolation in the region.