Does a little anti-Israeli PR from Cairo when the Egyptian government obviously needs to calm down its population really matter?
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry website reports:
On receiving the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Michael Williams, Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr affirmed the importance of exerting all possible efforts to maintain stability in Lebanon and protecting it from all regional developments which might be negatively reflected on the country and the importance of excluding any political actor from the Lebanese equation
Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Counselor Amr Roushdi stated that the Minister stressed that the main guarantee for Lebanese and regional stability is the immediate halting of the daily Israeli violations of the Lebanese airspace and respecting the Lebanese sovereignty over its space and soil.
In the context of a world nearly united in favor of the recognition of a Palestinian state, the popular Egyptian calls for an end to the Egyptian-Israeli alliance, the collapse of Israeli-Turkish ties, and the utter loss of U.S. credibility as a peace broker, yes, it matters.
While it is likely that no one would anticipate immediate Egyptian military moves to protect Lebanon, the mere launching of a diplomatic initiative focusing attention on Israel's belligerence against Lebanon changes the Mideast political environment. It says that now, suddenly, Israel no longer has the essentially unchallenged (except by Iran) right to do what it wants. (It also says that Iran no longer "owns" the issue of supporting Palestinians, something Washington should applaud.) Already on the defensive over the U.N. campaign by Palestinians for recognition of a Palestinian state and over its attack on the international delegation trying to bring aid to Gazans, Israel will now be preoccupied by a third embarrassing diplomatic battle.
Will Israeli FM Lieberman advocate support for anti-Egyptian terrorism, as he did with Turkey? (One might well wonder why Israel would want to legitimate the use of terror as a tool of state policy...) Indeed, Lieberman's threat suggests more clearly than anything else the disarray of the Israeli government. Israel's free ride during the post-9/11 years may be drawing to a close.
Given the obsequious attitude of Washington toward anything desired by the Israeli right, the military side of the whole issue of the Israeli campaign of Lebanese border violations seems likely to be minor, although the imminent transfer of Turkish warships to the Eastern Mediterranean with the apparent intent of protecting future popular efforts to break Israel's Gaza Ghetto blockade raises the possibility of a future military response on behalf of Lebanon.
For now, however, the real significance of Cairo's statement is its perfect timing in support of Erdogan. Erdogan will get off the plane today in Cairo knowing that his trip is already a success: Cairo is now publicly committed to raising the heat on Israeli transgressions of international law. Moreover, Cairo has selected an issue, very possibly after careful secret discussions with Ankara that can only make Israel look bad and in response to which Tel Aviv probably will not be able to do much. Beating up on helpless Lebanon only accomplishes one thing: it legitimizes Hezbollah. A real friend of Israel would so inform them, but Israel's lackeys in Washington are not, in the end, such friends.
So Tel Aviv must watch helplessly while Cairo and Ankara bask in the strong, warm sunlight on the high moral ground. After all, who can object to the integrity of international borders?
One caveat is important: the whole idea of a military alliance between Turks and Egyptians is, well, shall we just say "sensitive" and leave it at that? I mean, all that U.S. military aid in limbo, and Turkey probably does not want to be expelled from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty for Protecting Israel Organization). Then, there's all that historical baggage...I mean, let's just say that Cairo and Ankara do create a military alliance and do emerge supreme in the Mideast. Down the road a bit, sure, but let's just say they do. Then what? Will the land of Nasser, the Custodian of the Three Holy Pyramids play second fiddle to the new Ottoman Empire? Will the neo-Ottomans, who used to rule Egypt, play second fiddle to an impoverished country dependent on U.S. aid?
So, over the long run, many sensitivities will need to be managed. Nevertheless, for now, even a tiny step toward serious Turkish-Egyptian military cooperation in the context of worsening relations between each and Israel constitutes a tipping point. The weakening regional position of the U.S. only underscores this. Arguments over how many centimeters down the slippery slope this carries the Mideast are beside the point. The momentum has shifted. Instead of a dominant dynamic of U.S.-Israel-Saudi control of the Mideast, one now sees the potential rise of dominance of a new dynamic: political initiative shifting to a moderate (primarily peaceful and supportive of international law) coalition with real military power and popular support that will challenge Israel's right to play by special rules. Washington of course remains free to continue supporting everything Tel Aviv does, but only at the cost of harming U.S. national security a little bit every single time it does so.
And Erdogan? All he has to do is shake hands with Egyptian leaders, congratulate them loudly on their foresight, proclaim Ankara's strong support, visit the pyramids, and go home. That will suffice to change the dynamics of Mideast affairs. Anything beyond that will be icing on the moderate Islamist, moderate nationalist cake.
And that raises the question of what further steps Cairo and Ankara might indeed take in the context of an Egyptian call for Israel to respect Lebanese security, a Palestinian campaign for statehood, and Ankara's announcement that its warships will start patrolling off the coast of Israel and Lebanon.
Syria and Palestine. A strongly worded joint call for peaceful resolution of domestic conflict that lays out a set of principles to be applied equally in Syria and in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would put Cairo and Ankara nicely on the moral high ground.
Lebanon. A joint statement supporting the territorial integrity of Lebanon would be a minimal step. Joint naval patrols off Lebanon's coast would add substance. Holding discussions on possible joint military aid to Lebanon and leaking the story to the media would go a step further. If they want to be really creative, Cairo and Ankara could announce support for the principle of the integrity of "all regional state borders," specifically including the borders of Bahrain, Lebanon, a future Palestinian state, and the 1967 borders of Israel.
Gaza. And then, there's Gaza. Some initiative regarding the right of Gazans to participate in international trade, fish off their coastline, receive the income from any hydrocarbons in Gazan territorial waters, and travel into Egypt is the absolute minimum that must come out of the Turkish-Egyptian summit in order to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. Whatever else the two sides do, Cairo must figure out a way to start extricating itself from its complicity in the Gaza Ghetto.
The amazing thing about Erdogan's visit is the abundance of possibilities on the Egyptian-Turkish table.
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