The expanding confrontation between Israel and its neighbors has been described variously as a "train wreck," a "lose-lose situation" and a "political tsunami." It's all those things, and likely to get worse: For there's no quick fix by Israel's ally, the United States.
The Obama administration has been seeking diplomatic solutions to the two most incendiary issues -- the demand by Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for an Israeli apology for the Gaza flotilla incident of May 2010, and the Palestinian plan to ask the United Nations to declare statehood. Despite feverish American efforts to defuse these bombs, they're still ticking away.
The first instinct for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, feeling beleaguered and friendless, has been to hunker down and say no. Nobody ever wants to give ground under pressure, but Netanyahu's approach, while understandable, is a mistake. These are problems that Israel is going to have to answer more creatively.
When you strip away the posturing on all sides, what's happening is that Israel now lives in an Arab neighborhood where public opinion matters. For decades, Israelis have dismissed the "Arab street," as if presidents and kings were the only decisive voices. That approach worked so long as dictators could suppress popular opinion, but no more.
Let's start with Erdogan's demand for an apology. As a populist politician, he is channeling Turkish anger about the death of nine Turks aboard a ship in international waters. A deal seemed tantalizingly close. President Obama leaned on Erdogan, with whom he had developed some trust after a heated meeting in June 2010 in Toronto. Preserving the Turkish-Israeli relationship was so important strategically, argued U.S. officials, that Netanyahu should eat a little crow.
But Netanyahu decided no. He is said to have countered that if Israel started apologizing to Turkey, it would be pushed "to apologize everywhere for everything." Better just to refuse. A furious Erdogan responded with the promised reprisals -- including expelling the Israeli ambassador. And he set off this week on a campaign-style tour of the Arab world, denouncing Israel Monday in Cairo as "the West's spoiled child."
As bad as the Turkey feud is for Israel, the looming showdown at the United Nations may be worse. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, frustrated by U.S. inability to budge Netanyahu and create a Palestinian state, plans to ask the United Nations to declare statehood outright. This might seem a symbolic move, not worth all the angst, except that as a "state," Palestine might be able to assert air rights, navigation rights and the like.
Here's what U.S. officials expect: The Palestinians will lodge their statehood request with the Security Council. America's best hope (for which it is frantically lobbying votes) is that the council will delay action -- allowing the United States to avoid a veto. An American veto, while rescuing Israel, would poison U.S. relations with the Arabs at the precise moment Obama wants to show a new American face.
If the United States deflects a showdown in the Security Council, the statehood issue will then move to the General Assembly, where adoption is all but certain. The U.S. and close allies will vote against it, but the real effort is crafting a resolution that limits the most damaging statehood provisions. American diplomats probably would be relieved at that outcome.
Here's my bottom line on the collision of the new Arab Spring and the old animosities: Israelis may ultimately be more secure in a world of Arab democracies. But it will be a world where compromise is part of survival.