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Israel says US, Europe allies supportive on Gaza conflict; not so the Arab world

Netanyahu, Ashkenazi thank Western counterparts; Arab states express criticism — often highlighting Jerusalem more than Gaza

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The Austrian Federal Chancellery raised the Israeli flag as a sign of solidarity, in Vienna on May 14, 2021. (HELMUT FOHRINGER / APA / AFP)
The Austrian Federal Chancellery raised the Israeli flag as a sign of solidarity, in Vienna on May 14, 2021. (HELMUT FOHRINGER / APA / AFP)

Amid a series of protests and condemnations in the Arab world as Israel and Hamas continue to fight, and anti-Israel rallies in some western cities too, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on Friday thanked their leadership counterparts in the US and Europe for their support.

“I would like to say a word of appreciation to our friend President [Joe] Biden and to other friends,” said Netanyahu in a Friday afternoon video message, citing “the president of France, the British prime minister, the chancellor of Austria, the chancellor of Germany and others.

“They have upheld our natural and self-evident right to defend ourselves, to act in self-defense against these terrorists who both attack civilians and hide behind civilians, he added.”

For his part, Ashkenazi tweeted Friday: “Over the past few days, we have received dozens of messages of widespread support and solidarity for Israel from numerous leaders in the international community.”

He praised German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas for his statement blaming Hamas squarely for the violence, and for the “dire humanitarian consequences.”

“Israel defends itself because it has to,” said Maas.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaks at the foreign ministry in Berlin, on February 24, 2021 (Michael Sohn/Pool/AFP)

Ashkenazi also singled out French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian for his statement that “France condemns in the strongest terms the rocket and missile fire that has intensified from the Gaza Strip, aimed at Jerusalem and several inhabited areas of Israeli territory, including Tel Aviv, and that could cause another series of clashes. These strikes, carried out in violation of international law and for which responsibility has been claimed by Hamas, are unacceptable.”

Foreign Ministry sources had said Thursday that their diplomatic efforts were bearing fruit, especially in Europe and the United States.

The diplomatic officials said that they are closely tracking public declarations made by other countries, and claimed that the general trend was that the statements were moving from even-handed messages calling on both sides to de-escalate to statements placing the onus on Hamas for the violence and affirming Israel’s right to self-defense.

Hamas rockets and Iron Dome interceptors light up the night sky over the northern Gaza Strip on May 14, 2021. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“In the places where international public opinion is made, among the members of the UN Security Council… in the US, the entire American political realm, members of Congress, in the Administration, and in Europe, we are seeing definite movement toward far greater echoing of Israel’s messages,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official.

In a virtual meeting on Thursday with Israel’s ambassadors in Europe, the US, Arab states and the UN to lay out the contours of Israel’s diplomatic message, Ashkenazi expressed satisfaction with the statements coming out of foreign capitals.

Minister Of Foreign Affairs Gabi Ashkenazi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 10, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He defined the ministry’s overarching mission as “protecting our international legitimacy, freedom of action and our right to protect Israeli citizens.” He emphasized that the diplomats must defend Israel’s right to defend itself “in an assertive and unapologetic fashion.”

In Ashkenazi’s formulation, there is a direct relationship between the work of Israel’s envoys and the IDF’s freedom of action in response to Hamas attacks. “The fact that most of the international community supports Israel’s position that it can defend itself is the product of your diplomatic efforts,” he said.

In one sign of Israeli diplomatic success, a Czech honor guard raised the Israeli flag at Prague Castle as a sign of solidarity at the order of Czech President Milos Zeman.

Condemnation and mediation

While Israel’s message seems to have gained purchase among European and North American partners, the Arab world is a different story.

Protests continued across the region, especially as worshippers exited mosques at the conclusion of Eid al-Fitr prayers Thursday.

Hundreds gathered at the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad, and smaller protests broke out in Tunisia.

In Jordan, protesters gathered in Palestinian refugee camps, while for the fourth straight day in Amman demonstrators called for the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Jordan. More than 90 parliamentarians signed a petition with a similar demand. On Friday, hundreds of Jordanians rushed the border with Israel after breaking through a police checkpoint, local Jordanian media reported.

Also Friday, dozens of Lebanese protesters rioted on the border with Israel, setting fire to the fence and briefly crossing into Israeli territory. Israeli tanks fired warning shots at a number of the rioters who crossed the fence between the countries, the Israel Defense Forces said.

Though public opinion in Arab media and in the street is firmly with the Palestinians, the protests are not nearly as large as demonstrations during past Israel-Hamas conflicts. Moreover, there were some elder statesmen who took to the media to defend their states’ ongoing ties with Israel.

Jordanians protest near the Israeli embassy in Jordan’s capital Amman over the pending evictions of several Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 9, 2021. (Screen capture:)

In a notable Ammannet.net article, Jordan’s former deputy prime minister, Dr. Mamdouh Al-Abadi, explained that “Jordan in its foreign policy is part of a Western alliance, and it is difficult to get out of this alliance and camp. Therefore, relations between Jordan and Israel after the peace agreement were in a state of ebb and flow, meaning that the severing of relations is not impossible, but it needs caution and great justification.”

The secretary-general of Jordan’s centrist National Constitutional Party, Ahmad Al-Shunnak, stressed in the same article that Jordan acts based on deliberate strategies, not based on street demonstrations.

“Jordan does not think with the mentality of a faction,” said Al-Shunnak. “It thinks about a century-old issue and a belligerent state, and realizes the magnitude of the conflict.”

Jordan’s treaty with Israel gives it a unique and influential role in protecting Islamic and Christian sites, he argued.

Jordanian officials have expressed harsh condemnation of Israeli actions in Jerusalem, but when it comes to Hamas, the focus has been on the importance of a two-state solution.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi at a press conference in Berlin on March 10, 2021. (Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP)

“What the Israeli police and special forces are doing, from violations against the mosque to attacks on worshippers, is barbaric (behavior) that is rejected and condemned,” Amman said in a statement on Sunday, and summoned Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Jordan to decry Israel’s “attacks on worshipers.”

Subsequent statements from senior Jordanian leaders were less strident regarding the conflict with Hamas. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi tweeted that the recent escalation “shows dire need for effective effort to restore political horizons to end occupation, achieve peace on basis of 2-state solution. Occupation is root cause of conflict.” King Abdullah tweeted a request asking God to accept Muslims’ fasting and prayers as Ramadan ends, and to remember Palestinians and Jerusalem.

The violence in Jerusalem put Jordan in an uncomfortable position, explained Moshe Albo, a modern Middle East historian and researcher at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies. Israeli police actions on the Temple Mount were an attack on Jordan in the eyes of Amman, he said, which places great importance on its role as the protector of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

Israeli security forces deploy next to the Dome of the Rock mosque amid clashes with Palestinian protesters at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Jordan cannot sit by as the Muslim world sees images of Israeli police clashing with worshipers on the Temple Mount during the holiest days in the Muslim calendar. “If the crisis is concentrated on the Temple Mount, then the Jordanians have to be there very strongly,” explained Joshua Krasna, Middle East expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, “or they could lose it to somebody else.”

Actors like Turkey and Hamas have been working to muscle Jordan out of its dominant role at the shrine.

Egypt, too, released condemnations of Israeli actions, but its efforts as the main mediator between Israel and Hamas were its main focus as the week went on.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region can play a key role in de-escalation efforts. According to Egyptian outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm, UK Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly talked to Egypt’s ambassador in London Tarek Adel to praise Cairo’s mediation efforts.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing at the White House in Washington on April 12, 2021. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Egypt sees the conflict as an opportunity to stress to the world, especially the Biden administration, that it is a crucial player in maintaining stability in the region, said Albo. With Israel signing new peace agreements with Arab countries, there has been some talk about Egypt losing its role as a key to peace in the region. The current round of violence is a chance for Cairo to show that it is irreplaceable.

Egypt reached out to Israel to help calm ongoing violence, but had yet to receive a response, its foreign minister told an emergency Arab League meeting Tuesday.

“In the last few days, Egypt extensively reached out to Israel and other concerned countries urging them to exert all possible efforts to prevent the deterioration of the situation in Jerusalem,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

Egyptian mediators were in Israel and Gaza on Thursday, according to reports.

France’s foreign minister also noted Egypt’s ongoing efforts at mediation.

Despite the government’s efforts at de-escalation, the Egyptian street and institutional religious leaders condemned Israel and Jews in the harshest terms.

During Friday prayers at Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque, the preacher called Zionists “an abomination of nature” and promised that “what was taken by force will be taken back by force.”

Israel’s Gulf partners, both the UAE and Bahrain who have formally signed agreements and those who cooperate quietly have condemned Israel’s actions, focusing on Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said that the Kingdom “categorically rejects Israel’s plans and measures to evict Palestinians from their homes and impose sovereignty over their land.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan speaks during a press conference in the capital Riyadh on March 22, 2021, announcing an offer of a ceasefire with Yemen’s Houthi rebels. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

“The Kingdom stands with the Palestinian people, and supports all efforts aimed at reaching a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue, enabling the Palestinian people to establish their independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders agreement, with east Jerusalem as its capital, in accordance with international resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.”

At the Saudis’ request, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss the escalating violence. The Saudis also joined Jordan, the PA, Egypt, Morocco and Qatar on a committee to urge UN Security Council members to take action to stop Israeli policies in Jerusalem.

Western-allied Sunni countries, even those with official ties with Israel, “all have to make sure they are not perceived as being insufficiently worried by the ‘assault on Islam’,” said Krasna.

This is especially complicated for the UAE and Morocco, he said, as they face questions over their decisions to normalize relations with Israel. The public is asking, “What do you say now? What does normalization mean now?’” Krasna said.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk at the ceremony for the signing of the Abraham Accords, at the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. (Avi Ohayon / GPO)

“The UAE very much sold their relationship with Israel as a way of restraining Israel. There was a subtext that we can get more by engaging than by being not engaged.”

“The UAE stands with the Palestinian right, with the end of the Israeli occupation, with the two-state solution, and with an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and this is a historic and principled position that does not budge,” tweeted Anwar Gargash, who stepped down as the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs in February.

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