JERUSALEM — With its Cairo embassy ransacked, its ambassador to Turkey expelled and the Palestinians seeking statehood recognition at the United Nations, Israel found itself on Saturday increasingly isolated and grappling with a radically transformed Middle East where it believes its options are limited and poor.
The diplomatic crisis, in which winds unleashed by the Arab Spring are now casting a chill over the region, was crystallized by the scene of Israeli military jets sweeping into Cairo at dawn on Saturday to evacuate diplomats after the Israeli Embassy had been besieged by thousands of protesters.
From the Times
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It was an image that reminded some Israelis of Iran in 1979, when Israel evacuated its embassy in Tehran after the revolution there replaced an ally with an implacable foe.
“Seven months after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Egyptian protesters tore to shreds the Israeli flag, a symbol of peace between Egypt and its eastern neighbor, after 31 years,” Aluf Benn, the editor in chief of the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote Saturday. “It seems that the flag will not return to the flagstaff anytime soon.”
Egypt and Israel both issued statements on Saturday reaffirming their commitments to their peace treaty, but in a televised address on Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel warned that Egypt “cannot ignore the heavy damage done to the fabric of peace.”
Facing crises in relations with Egypt and Turkey, its two most important regional allies, Israel turned to the United States. Throughout the night on Friday, desperate Israeli officials called their American counterparts seeking help to pressure the Egyptians to protect the embassy.
President Obama “expressed his great concern” in a telephone call with Mr. Netanyahu, the White House said in a statement, and he called on Egypt “to honor its international obligations to safeguard the security of the Israeli Embassy.”
Washington — for whom Israel, Turkey and Egypt are all critical allies — has watched tensions along the eastern Mediterranean with growing unease and increasing alarm. And though the diplomatic breaches were not entirely unexpected, they prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity in Washington.
The mayhem in Cairo also exacted consequences for Egypt, raising questions about whether its military-led transitional government would be able to maintain law and order and meet its international obligations. The failure to prevent an invasion of a foreign embassy raised security concerns at other embassies as well.
The Egyptian government responded to those questions Saturday night, pledging a new crackdown on disruptive protests and reactivating the emergency law allowing indefinite detentions without trial, one of the most reviled measures enacted under former President Hosni Mubarak.
Since the start of the Arab uprisings, internal critics and foreign friends, including the United States, have urged Israel to take bold conciliatory steps toward the Palestinians, and after confrontations in which Israeli forces killed Egyptian and Turkish citizens, to reach accommodations with both countries.
Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador a week ago over Israel’s refusal to apologize for a deadly raid last year on a Turkish ship bound for Gaza in which nine Turks were killed. The storming of the embassy in Cairo on Saturday was precipitated by the killing of three Egyptian soldiers along the border by Israeli military forces pursuing terrorism suspects.
Israel has expressed regret for the deaths in both cases, but has not apologized for actions that it considers defensive.
The overriding assessment of the government of Mr. Netanyahu is that such steps will only make matters worse because what is shaking the region is not about Israel, even if Israel is increasingly its target, and Israel can do almost nothing to affect it.
“Egypt is not going toward democracy but toward Islamicization,” said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo who reflected the government’s view. “It is the same in Turkey and in Gaza. It is just like what happened in Iran in 1979.”
A senior official said Israel had few options other than to pursue what he called a “porcupine policy” to defend itself against aggression. Another official, asked about Turkey, said, “There is little that we can do.”
Critics of the government take a very different view.
Mr. Benn, the Haaretz editor, acknowledged that Mr. Netanyahu could not be faulted for the events in Egypt, the rise of an Islamic-inspired party in Turkey or Iran’s nuclear program. But echoing criticism by the Obama administration, he said that Mr. Netanyahu “has not done a thing to mitigate the fallout from the aforementioned developments.”