Israel is paying a high diplomatic price for the weeks-long Palestinian Intifada, being pushed deeper into isolation by its Arab neighbors as the bloodletting continues unabated across the occupied territories.
Israel was sent reeling on Tuesday by peace partner Egypt's decision to recall its veteran ambassador to the Jewish state to protest at the "excessive" use of force against Palestinians, the day after a massive blitz on the Gaza Strip.
"The problem is to what extent it encourages (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat to continue fighting and to succeed in undermining Israel's relations with Arab states," said Efraim Kam, deputy head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
The Egyptian move came little over a week after world Muslim leaders "invited" Islamic countries to break ties with Israel in protest at the near eight-week long Intifada which has claimed the lives of more than 250 people, most of them Palestinians.
And it came a month after the Arab summit in Cairo threatened a freeze in ties.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Amr Moussa told the state-run MENA news agency that President Hosni Mubarak had summoned Mohammed Bassiouni because of the "deteriorating situation"
The Gulf states of Oman and Qatar together with Morocco and Tunisia have all severed their partial ties with the Jewish state because of the unrest, the worst to rock the region since the seven-year Intifada that preceded the Oslo peace accords in 1993.
It marks a dramatic shift since April, when Israel had emerged after years of pariah status and could boast diplomatic relations at various levels with 162 countries, with just 27 refusing to allow the Israeli flag in their country, according to the leading Haaretz newspaper.
Almost all those without ties are Arab or Muslim states.
"At any given time, the quality of ties with these countries is directly influenced by the temperature of the Middle East process in general (and) where negotiations stand with the Palestinians and the rules of the game set by Egypt," Haaretz commentator Aluf Benn wrote at the time.
Israel voiced its dismay at the move by Egypt, which was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979 and has played a key role in peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Jordan is the only other Arab state with full diplomatic ties with Israel after signing a peace deal in 1994, but their relations too have come under strain with about half of Jordan's population of Palestinian origin.
Jordan has still not replaced the last ambassador to Tel Aviv after his assignment ended.
"It is a grave decision and harms Egypt's ability to continue to play an important role in the political process," Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami told public radio.
Egypt recalled its ambassador to the Jewish state only once before, in 1982 after Israel's ill-fated invasion of Lebanon.
And Barak's top security advisor Danny Yatom tried to downplay the decision.
"I believe his recall gives the false impression that there is a crisis between Israel and Egypt," he said.
But the Palestinians welcomed the move, saying it was a "clear message" to the peace process co-sponsor the United States and to Israel that Egypt and Mubarak were angered by Monday's retaliatory strikes on the Gaza Strip.
"This message must be understood by all and the situation between Israel and the Arab world has reached an unacceptable level."
But at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Qatar last week, Muslim leaders stopped short of demanding a complete break of diplomatic ties with Israel.
The final declaration said that leaders of the 56-member OIC "invite member states that have relations with Israel or that have taken measures toward the establishment of such relations as part of the peace process to break them," said the declaration.
Kam said it was still unclear what repercussions the Egyptian move would have on the rest of the Arab world, saying it could hinge on any further action by Cairo.
"But I don't think Egypt will do anything to violate the peace treaty it has with Israel," he added.
Egypt is the beneficiary of two billion dollars in US military and civilian aid under the terms of the peace deal clinched at the US presidential retreat at Camp David -- JERUSALEM (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)