Obama’s Egypt Policy: The Israel Factor

A strange Arab alliance with Israel, and the American aid that comes with it.

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Khaled Abdullah / REUTERS

Members of the Republican Guards stand in line at a barricade blocking protesters supporting deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi near a Republican Guards headquarters in Cairo July 9, 2013.

As Washington debates whether to cut off America’s $1.5 billion in annual assistance to Egypt, few countries are watching with more interest than Israel. On Monday the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported that Israeli officials have urged President Barack Obama to keep subsidizing Cairo despite the legal prohibition on U.S. aid to governments installed by military coup. That’s no surprise: “Israel has always been a very strong proponent of the assistance program,” says Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Cairo. “It is in Israel’s interest that the U.S. maintain a very strong relationship with Egypt.” But understanding why that is goes to the heart of America’s relationship with Egypt–and why Obama is so reluctant to disrupt it.

Israel is the prime reason why Egypt has for nearly 25 years been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. (The top recipient is–you guessed it–Israel.) American largesse began flowing to Cairo in 1979, after Egypt’s then-president, Anwar Sadat, signed the September 1978 Camp David accords establishing peace between Egypt and Israel. That was a remarkable development, considering the two nations had conducted four armed conflicts in the first 25 years of Israel’s existence, and given the deep hostility within Egypt towards the Jewish state.

(MORE: Obama’s Egypt Test: Just What Is ‘Democracy,’ Anyway?)

With his country economically stagnant, however, Sadat saw the accords as a new hope for Egypt. They would reclaim the Sinai desert lost to Israel in 1967; end a constant state of war on its border; move Cairo from Moscow’s orbit into Washington’s; and help to advance the Palestinian cause. But Sadat’s people didn’t see the final product that way: “Peace with Israel had become a betrayal,” writes Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations in his 2011 book The Struggle for Egypt. Indeed, signing the American-brokered peace deal would cost Sadat his life when an Islamist army soldier gunned him down as he reviewed a military parade on October 6, 1981.

But the peace deal survived the murder of the man who sealed it. And so did the generous American aid that soon began as a result of the accords (in what Cook, via email, calls “an informal payoff”). That aid has actually grown less generous, however. Since 1998, Congress has cut non-military assistance to Egypt from $815 million to $250 million. Meanwhile the $1.3 billion in military funds that Washington grants Cairo has not increased in 30 years; its inflation-adjusted value has dropped by more than half. That still allows Egypt to purchase state of the art equipment, largely consisting of M-1 Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets. But thanks to a lack of trained personnel, not to mention peace on its borders, “most of the time these tanks and aircraft are just gathering dust,” says Tarek Radwan of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. (On Wednesday Reuters reported that the U.S. will allow the delivery to Egypt of four already-purchased F-16s.)

More important, then, is the symbolic goodwill and very tangible direct relations with the Egyptian army that money purchases. That’s in the interest of Washington officials who want influence within the Arab world’s most populous country. And it’s most welcome in Israel, which, far from fearing Egypt’s armed forces, sees them as a buffer against extremists who might prefer a return to hostilities. “Israel sees the Egyptian military as a pro-peace lobby inside the Egyptian political system,” says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

(MORE: With Egypt in Crisis, Is Obama Playing It Too Safe?)

The peace deal, and Washington’s influence over Egypt, helps Israel in other ways. Egyptian forces secure Egypt’s border with Israeli in the Sinai, as well as the nearby border with Gaza, likely preventing terrorist attacks on Israel from the area. Makovsky also notes Egypt’s influence with Palestinian leaders. While its ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, tilted towards the radicals of Hamas, Egypt’s military and its political allies are closer to the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who was quick to “congratulate the Egyptian leadership in this transitional phase of its history.”

No one thinks a cutoff of American aid would lead to another war between Israel and Egypt. Anti-Semitism is rampant in Egypt, and Israeli diplomats live and work under tight security. But a pragmatic peace endures: Makovsky recalls being in Cairo with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and hearing Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, declare that war with Israel knocks out a generation of economic development for Egypt. “The U.S. and Israel don’t want wars,” Makovsky says. “Egypt doesn’t want war. Everybody’s happy. There’s no incentive for anybody to change that.” Even Morsi, who once urged Egyptians “to nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred towards those Zionists and Jews, and all those who support them,” didn’t try to end peace with Israel.

Even so, Israel would prefer not to tinker with a formula that has served its interests quite well for a generation–particularly when it has growing threats from Syria and Iran to worry about. Moreover, as Jeffrey Goldberg notes, Pakistan offers a cautionary lesson in what can become of a foreign military’s officer corps when U.S. aid is suddenly withdrawn.
“This is when you need influence with the military,” says Wisner, whom Obama tapped as a special envoy to Mubarak during the 2011 crisis that toppled the former Egyptian leader. “You don’t give it away by cutting your ties.” Israel is clearly hoping that Obama will heed that message.
MORE: Was It a Coup? The White House Still Isn’t Saying
18 comments
Adly
Adly

Yes, this is the bloody Coup in Egypt

Perfettamenta
Perfettamenta

Macbeth curse will follow the bloody Coup performers.

Perfettamenta
Perfettamenta

Military Coup is a bad sin , which will bring damn to the General CC , every martyr 's blood will be a bad omen on him . it was failed in many countries . And Egypt being the leading Arab country in the middle east , will drive the democracy again in the region by regaining the legitimacy with Dr. Morsi.  Israel want's nothing but complete the planned protocols since 1901.

basmasahmed
basmasahmed

its a second revolution not a coup, most of the Egyptians shared as we saw our Egypt had been sold and we don't have any future under a leader ship of a president caring about his groups only and hamas benefits and ignoring the country and all needed people in Egypt, i share and my family and friends and i saw a very poor and needed people all ages and genders sharing and ready to die to get rid of this man.

if you had a president like Morsi trust all american people will not accept to give him more than 6 months not 1 year.

AdamSmith
AdamSmith

Obvious anti-Israeli bias in tone and choice of quotes:

 “Peace with Israel had become a betrayal,” writes Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations in his 2011 book The Struggle for Egypt. Indeed, signing the American-brokered peace deal would cost Sadat his life when an Islamist army soldier gunned him down as he reviewed a military parade on October 6, 1981."

Peace with Israel had become a betrayal? After costly wars in which Egypt lost tens of thousands of soldiers and the Sinai, PEACE was a betrayal?

It was Islamists who refused to acknowledge reality and place their religious beliefs above all else that cost Sadat his life. Sadat received  the Nobel Peace Prize, the rest of the world recognized peace was a good thing, even if the anti-Israel contingent at the Council for Foreign Relations thinks otherwise.

 Egypt benefited economically beyond American aid from its peace with Israel. And given the horrific state of the Egyptian economy, that's no small consideration.


SergeBaruch
SergeBaruch

Crowley states: “...Sadat’s people didn’t see the final product that way: “Peace with Israel had become a betrayal,” writes Steven A. Cook”.

Mmmm, so Mr. Cook is a Sadat's man, in his capacity of Arab leaning Council on Foreign Relations? Nice to hear a confirmation of what is actually for long time a public secret from such a authoritative source. It remains unclear though what is the betrayal: the assassination of country's president by a member of its armed forces? If not that, betrayal of what was peace with Israel? Of hopes of those who wish Israel's destruction? Obviously, Mr Cook and Council on Foreign Relations included. 

Rampant antisemitism in Egypt? Only among the so called activist - in this case, Islamist - crowd. Funny, that same unpleasant trait is rampant among the Lefty activist crowd in the West. However, all 12 Egyptian universities teach Hebrew, and many of secular protesters interviewed by Israeli television, speak it almost flawlessly. 

alvarez.t3
alvarez.t3

The TRANSPARENT black puppet exposed , still enslaved as President of the United States to the 1% elite White trash .

mai21
mai21

US aid to Egypt isn't a charity. It   pays for air space usage and Suez Canal access in case of Iran does something fool.

schroeder.cary
schroeder.cary

US keeps trying to help the middle east countries and just ends up damed if we do and damed if we don't.  Where like the Enabler for countries full of crazy people too just become more crazy.  Let them keep fighting each other until their tired of fighting and start to fix their problems themselves.  Sometimes people can only learn to fix their mistakes the hard way.  Like how they violently hate each others religious beliefs.  Their along way from accepting fellow middle easterners with different beliefs but eventually will have to learn it or keep on fighting each other.

arvay
arvay

The Egypt/Israeli nexus is the Groundhog Day of American middle east policy -- the more thing appear to change, the more they remain the same old thing. I'm sure  McCain has been issued his STFU orders from his large AIPAC donors.

Bottom line: we're stuck paying this enormous bribe.  If the Army -- which has just been gifted some$12 billion from those great democracies saudi Arabia and Qatar -- can use the breathing space to vitalize Egypt's economy, they will have really accomplished something permanent -- like independence. If they fail, Egypt will probably explode again. and again. 

The gigantic Chinese middle class remains relatively placid because the party leadership is delivering the goods. My guess would be that most Egyptians will welcome some things that weaken Islam if they can see their living standards raised. 

orly
orly

what are you talking about.

The canal is owned and maintained by the Suez Canal Authority[6] (SCA) of Egypt. Under international treaty, it may be used "in time of war as in time of peace, by every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag."[7]

NarmerKamal
NarmerKamal

@schroeder.cary  sorry to say but it's very funny saying that US is trying to help the middle east, US is only trying to help US interest for any price even if that would conflict with other nations future.I really understand that and i can't even refuse it because it serves the national security and prosperity of itself, but at least don't interfere that much inside other country internal affairs and let the people themselves decide what is the best for them.

What happened in Egypt was not a coup at all, more than 30 million went down to the streets trying their best to show their frustration and rejection of the muslim brotherhood regime or even a rejection of the whole religious political system that really doesn't know or care about religion but about the leaders interest and it shows them as gods on earth.

The people of Egypt wants to have Freedom to choose how they should be ruled and to start having real progress at all fields without being chained under ridiculous beliefs that make us go backward for centuries.

AdamSmith
AdamSmith

@orly  

Clueless.

Egypt has nationalized the Suez Canal before, 1956.

orly
orly

@AdamSmith @orly and they got cairo bombard by isreal france and england and nearly risked a nuclear standoff with usa ussr.

whats your point.

at the moment anyone can use it for any purpose. the military aid is to keep the junta in place for israels sake not for the canal and some fantasy about the Persian empire