Leon Panetta visited Israel to warn about its "growing isolation" and he is half right. Right about the isolation and wrong about the growing part.
Israel is isolated in the same way that the United States and Canada are isolated among a hemisphere of Latino states or they would be if they paid attention to what was going on south of the border. But the North American anglos have enough land and population to ignore the commonplace hostility of their southern neighbors. Enough breathing room that most in the north are unaware that there is a rivalry in the south.
With its tiny territory, a sizable minority population that is from the regional majority (something that is also becoming an issue in the United States) and nothing in the way of a buffer zone, the isolation is much more extreme for the only non-Muslim and non-Arab state in the Middle-East. But there is one additional factor. Israel's difference is not merely ethnic or racial, it's also religious. And the religion it's surrounded by is a creed which views mass murder as an acceptable solution to religious differences.
If Sunnis and Shiites can't get along with one another, how exactly is Israel expected to overcome a much more fundamental isolation?
Israel will always remain isolated in a region defined by religion and race. There is no way around that and no amount of peace processes and policies will change that. There is a measurable distance between Iran and the rest of the region because it is Persian and Shiite. In the same way there is a distance between Turkey and the rest of the region because it is non-Arab. No matter how much Iran and Turkey get out front to lead the Jihad, they will always be on the outs.
There have only been two defining movements in the region: Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism. The protests and revolutions of the Arab Spring have only been a means of advancing the goals of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism. Israel's Jews, like the Kurds, the Persians and the Turks, have no place in a Pan-Arabist region. Unlike all of them, Israel's Jews are completely on the outs in a Pan-Islamist scheme.
If Israel's isolation has grown, it is because the region has shifted further into the Pan-Islamist column after Turkey's Islamist rulers succeeded in bringing down the central pillar of the secular state. There is nothing Israel could do to reverse this isolation except convert en masse to Islam. And even if it that it would be the wrong kind of Islam as far as the Shiites of Iran or the Alawite rulers of Syria are concerned.
While the old British foreign policy hands, bastards though they were, innately understood all this, the Muslim world has successfully framed the conflict in terms of the Palestinian Arabs, whom they keep around as cheap labor and cheap killers. The drumbeat of pressure on Israel to somehow create a Palestinian state as a means of ending its isolation is a wrongheaded conclusion drawn from the cynical propaganda of failed regimes.
Israel cannot end its isolation, because its isolation is the product of regional identity, not policy. Much of the Middle East has backchannels to Israel and carries on covert forms of trade with Israel. At the same time their newspapers and television states attack Israel whenever a ruler needs a convenient scapegoat. Any normalization that happens will be equally impermanent and will be reversed the moment that the situation at home changes. This is what happened in Egypt.
Israel is hated because it is different and it survives because it is powerful. It is powerful because its military is used for external defense, rather than internal repression. This sets it apart from the Muslim world where militaries are used primarily for internal repression.
A Middle Eastern army that becomes strong enough is called a government. Middle Eastern countries that are large enough to field a large army rarely need it as a defense against an invasion and small countries are rarely capable of fielding a competent army because they lack the professionalism and don't see the point. Instead they rely on agreements with larger neighbors that keep them from being gobbled up.
Israel is the exception as a tiny country fielding a large army. It is able to do this because of its level of competence and because its internal stability means that the military does not need to be used for domestic repression, is not at risk of carrying out a coup and does not need to be composed of a ruling minority.
These are very important points and they form the backbone of Israeli exceptionalism. But they are also being eroded.
The drive to negotiate with the terrorists and appease by ethnically cleansing its own population has made Israel very unstable. The left is obsessed with using the military for the domestic repression of the right, while at the same time terrified that the majority of the military will soon be composed of a group that is culturally and theologically opposed to their agenda.
But the primary source of the instability is the pipeline of Muslim pressure on America and Europe, becoming American and European pressure on Israel, which turns into domestic instability at home. Usuing the West as a tool, the Muslim world has managed to destabilize Israel and that threatens its survival as a democracy, and its survival as a democracy threatens the viability of its defenses.
Israel is told to abandon much of its territory and its identity, and wreck its military by turning it against its own citizens in the hopes of normalizing relations with the region. If not, then it will face regional and global isolation. Either you kill yourself or I'll kill you.
It's a neat trap and a devil's bargain because most people will choose to take control of a situation even if it's to their own detriment. Given a choice between chopping off their own hand or being shot in the head, they'll choose the former. Worse yet they'll do it to show how cooperative they're willing to be. And once they've agreed to chop off their hand, then they can't very well argue over a foot or two.
Give your enemy a choice between safe passivity and foolish action on a single open path and you can crush his forces every time. Make the foolish action seem noble and inevitable and you can go home early.
The Muslim world can't maintain stability in its own countries, because its Pan-this and Pan-that which always leave someone one, but it is excellent at destabilizing other countries, at spreading rumor and innuendo, at playing the aggrieved victims, at street theater accompanied by bouts of violence.
As the saner parts of the world are losing their minds and agreeing to commit suicide, they expect Israel to follow suit. To jump into the sea in the name of some greater global harmony. Panetta is only the latest messenger boy toting a big briefcase filled with the same bad news. "You've got to work harder, really put your back into appeasing those terrorists. Throw in Jerusalem, Ariel and whatever else you've got."
But no matter what Israel does it will remain isolated and that's a good thing.
Being alone in the Muslim world is not a bad thing morally, though it may be a bad position to be in defensively. That sense of isolation is wearying and dehumanizing, an endless horizon that seems as if it could be bridged with only a little effort. But that is an illusion.
On a map Israel seems isolated, but in truth it is the Muslim world which is isolated. It is the Muslim world that has carved itself up into tiny enclaves, each sect, each people, each street divided against itself. The chaos in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya are a reminder of the internal fragmentation and isolation of the Muslim world. An isolation so pervasive that it cannot be overcome except through temporary alliances against a common foe. An ultimate "Other".
Israel has not been isolated by its choices, but by the cultural failures of its neighbors. As long as its neighbors deal with their own instability through war and tyranny in the name of collective identities that they cannot sustain, that will not change.