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Diplomatic row with Turkey puts Israel on notice

If Turkey's relationship with Israel had been strained for some time, it has now reached a breaking point. But for reasons that remain unclear, Israel continues to ignore the mood on its doorstep.

If Turkey's relationship with Israel had been strained for some time, it has now reached a breaking point. Ankara's threat to expel the Israeli ambassador is the strongest signal to date that Israel faces a new diplomatic reality.

Turkey and Egypt have been poles of stability for Israel in the region, allies even when their own people condemned Israel for its treatment of Palestinians and occupation of their land. Those alliances, backed by the United States, have sheltered Israel from the consequences of its actions. That unaccountability may now be coming to an end.

Turkey's new tack on Israel was apparent after a very public argument at Davos in 2009 over the Gaza war. But it was the raid on the aid flotilla ship MV Mavi Marmara last year, which killed nine activists, and Israel's refusal to apologise that has driven relations to the brink. On Thursday, a UN panel partly exonerated Israel for stopping the flotilla, but found that the commando raid had used unnecessary force.

A major diplomatic rupture - almost unimaginable five years ago - now seems probable. Israel's ambassador has been given until Wednesday to leave the country. And yesterday, Turkey stepped up the war of words, promising that its navy would escort aid ships to Gaza. "The eastern Mediterranean will no longer be a place where Israeli naval forces can freely exercise their bullying practices against civilian vessels," a Turkish diplomat told Hurriyet Daily News.

A naval confrontation between the region's two largest militaries is still a farfetched scenario. But Israel has enough problems without warlike posturing from one of its few former allies. It is a symptom of a series of missteps in what is, thanks to the Arab uprisings, a rapidly changing political landscape.

The recent killing of five Egyptian officers in Sinai similarly increased tension. Since the January 25 revolution, Egyptians have called for the Camp David truce to be cancelled and Israeli envoys to be expelled. The days when Israel could depend on deals with dictators like Hosni Mubarak are over.

But it continues to ignore the mood on its doorstep. And the Netanyahu administration will persist. The single change that Israel could make - a just approach to Palestinians - seems beyond this government.

These are times of fast-paced change. As regional governments become more responsive to their people, Israel's long-term future depends on also coming to terms with public opinion. It has a very long way to go.

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