Netanyahu can either prepare for another war or accept that Israel can no longer impose its will on its neighbours.
Monday's visit to Egypt by Turkey's prime minister, Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, will be watched like no other. It comes just three days after thousands of Egyptians stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Eighty-six Israelis inside fled, and six security guards trapped inside a strong room had to be freed by Egyptian commandos, but only after intervention from the White House. What those diplomats felt was the wrath of an Egyptian people humiliated by the killing of five soldiers at the Israeli border three weeks ago. A sixth soldier died at the weekend. Mr Erdogan will bring with him the support of a regional power and Nato member whose citizens were also killed by Israeli soldiers on the Gaza flotilla last year, and who is now threatening to send warships to protect the next one. If post-revolutionary Egypt and an economically resurgent Turkey make common cause against their former common ally – and there is every indication that they will – Israel's isolation in the region will be profound.
The pace of events has surprised everyone. The pro-Palestinian sentiment of the thousands who thronged Tahrir Square was latent rather than explicit. Analysts then expected that major foreign policy changes would have to await domestic ones like elections and a new civilian government. Israel on the other hand found itself looking the wrong way, gearing up for protest on the West Bank and on its Syrian and Lebanese borders after the declaration of statehood at the UN later this month. No one expected the forces unleashed by the Arab spring to turn this suddenly on an Israeli flagpole in Cairo.
The popular wrath is a result of two factors. First, seven and a half months after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak's regime, the Egyptian street is still the cutting edge of change in the country. Its ruling military council, with elements of the former regime, are playing a double game. Assuring continuity of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty to some, and using the gradual breakdown of that treaty to reassert lost Egyptian pride and sovereignty in the Sinai to others. It may not have been accidental that during the weekend's drama in Cairo no one in the White House could get the head of Egypt's ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, on the end of a telephone in an effort to rescue the trapped security guards. Second, Israel's old alliances were with regimes, usually despotic ones, not their people. Now that popular opinion is once again making itself felt in the region, Egypt will never again stand quiet – as it did when Israel launched its military campaign against Gaza in 2008 – if another war breaks out.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu now faces a real choice. He must realise that humiliating Turkey by refusing to apologise for the deaths on the Mavi Marmara was a colossal error. The strategic consequences for Israel of a hostile Turkish-Egyptian alliance could last years. They far outweigh the advantages of a tactical victory in the UN Palmer report, which lasted exactly days. Israel needs to repair relations with Turkey and do it quickly. The price of such a rapprochement will have gone up in the last week, but it is still worth paying. The Israeli premier's reaction on Saturday to events in Cairo was, by his standards, measured and moderate, so maybe even he now realises this.
The choice he faces is clear. He can either prepare for another war (Avigdor Lieberman's response to Turkey was to suggest that Israel arm the PKK) or he can accept that Israel can no longer impose its will on hostile and weaker neighbours. For one thing, the neighbours are growing stronger. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz put it more bluntly. In an editorial about the harassment of Israeli passengers on a Turkish Airlines flight in retaliation for similar treatment Israeli authorities meted out to Turkish passengers, it suggested that Israel needs humiliation in order to respect others. No one needs further humiliation, but respect of its neighbours is in short supply.