Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israel-Egypt peace treaty

Obama Blunders Again on Egypt

With the Obama administration dithering on Syria and then embracing a new round of engagement with Iran, the turmoil in Egypt, which was the top foreign news story this past summer, has largely been out of the headlines since August. In the intervening months, the Egyptian military has been following up on the coup in which they ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi by suppressing the Islamist group. Though all indications point to the military retaining the support of most Egyptians—they only intervened to topple Morsi after tens of millions took to the streets to protest the Brotherhood’s push to transform the world’s most populous Arab country into an Islamist state—the situation remains fluid. In the last week alone some 900 Egyptians, including 100 police and military personnel, have been killed in violence sparked by Brotherhood protests. This latest outbreak is apparently the last straw for an Obama administration that had supported Morsi and discouraged the coup. As the New York Times reports, administration officials are saying that within days the U.S. will formally cut military aid to Egypt.

The aid cutoff will be trumpeted by the administration as a sign that it is serious about supporting democracy and upholding the rule of law. But if the goal here is to help end the violence in Egypt or bolster stability in the region, this is the worst mistake President Obama can make. U.S. influence in Egypt is already minimal, but a gesture that will be interpreted as encouraging the Brotherhood protests will be seen as evidence that, despite Washington’s denials, Obama really does favor the Islamists. After handing Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime’s Iranian allies an unexpected and unearned victory in Syria, it appears the administration is determined to pursue its grudge against the military even if it undermines what’s left of U.S. influence in the region as well as undermining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

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With the Obama administration dithering on Syria and then embracing a new round of engagement with Iran, the turmoil in Egypt, which was the top foreign news story this past summer, has largely been out of the headlines since August. In the intervening months, the Egyptian military has been following up on the coup in which they ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi by suppressing the Islamist group. Though all indications point to the military retaining the support of most Egyptians—they only intervened to topple Morsi after tens of millions took to the streets to protest the Brotherhood’s push to transform the world’s most populous Arab country into an Islamist state—the situation remains fluid. In the last week alone some 900 Egyptians, including 100 police and military personnel, have been killed in violence sparked by Brotherhood protests. This latest outbreak is apparently the last straw for an Obama administration that had supported Morsi and discouraged the coup. As the New York Times reports, administration officials are saying that within days the U.S. will formally cut military aid to Egypt.

The aid cutoff will be trumpeted by the administration as a sign that it is serious about supporting democracy and upholding the rule of law. But if the goal here is to help end the violence in Egypt or bolster stability in the region, this is the worst mistake President Obama can make. U.S. influence in Egypt is already minimal, but a gesture that will be interpreted as encouraging the Brotherhood protests will be seen as evidence that, despite Washington’s denials, Obama really does favor the Islamists. After handing Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime’s Iranian allies an unexpected and unearned victory in Syria, it appears the administration is determined to pursue its grudge against the military even if it undermines what’s left of U.S. influence in the region as well as undermining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

The bloody crackdowns on the Brotherhood are not easy to defend. But the difference between Cairo and Washington is not so much one about tactics as it is about whether a totalitarian Islamist party should have been allowed to hijack the post-Mubarak revolution and ensure that it could never be forced to give up power. While many of us may have hoped that the Arab Spring could bring democracy to Egypt, it was soon clear that this was a pipe dream. The choice in Egypt is not between democracy and the military but between an Islamist dictatorship and secular authoritarians. As such the U.S. should have little doubt about the relative attractiveness of the latter. If anything like democracy is ever to prevail in Egypt—a proposition that ought to be treated as doubtful even as a long-range hypothetical—it can only happen once the Brotherhood is eliminated as a political power.

The aid cutoff, which will reportedly not include some money aimed at bolstering counter-terrorism, won’t topple the military. But it will encourage the Brotherhood to persist in their effort to win back power. Thus rather than helping to ensure that violence is gradually eliminated, it more or less guarantees a longer struggle in which the Islamists will believe their military opponents are isolated.

The arguments in favor of cutting off aid or at least using the threat as leverage in order to force the military are based in an assumption that the Brotherhood is too strong and too numerous to be eliminated. But while the Brotherhood remains formidable, the military has already proved that the Islamists don’t have the support of the people as they had always claimed. The Obama administration has been trying to play both ends against the middle in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak and failed miserably, as both Islamists and secular Egyptians blamed the U.S. for backing their opponents.

Had the U.S. cut aid at the time of the coup the policy would have been a mistake, but it would been consistent with past efforts to back the Brotherhood and to keep the military in its place. But to do so now after the Brotherhood is on the run and seemingly beaten is neither logical nor good policy.

It is also, as many in Israel have pointed out, a blow to regional security. The months since the coup have seen Cairo and Jerusalem working together as never before. The two countries have worked together to fight the growing al-Qaeda presence in the Sinai that had filled the vacuum left by the Brotherhood government. The military government has also placed tremendous financial pressure on the Hamas regime in Gaza, a policy that is a blow to terrorism as well as bolstering, at least in theory, the Israel-Palestinian peace process. By contrast, cutting off the aid will be a blow to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and strengthen the voices of those Egyptians who want to revise or junk it altogether.

The consequences of the cutoff cannot be fully predicted, but for the U.S. to blithely assume that Cairo has no other options for a foreign ally or military aid again demonstrates the amateurism that has largely characterized Obama’s foreign policy. The U.S. alliance with Egypt began when Anwar Sadat kicked the Soviets out in exchange for U.S. cash that was made contingent on Cairo keeping the peace with Israel. With Russia now regaining some of their lost prestige by Obama’s allowing Putin to have his way in Syria, is it really such a stretch to believe that Moscow might fill the void left by Washington? Does anyone, even in the Obama State Department, think that the causes of peace, stability, or even democracy would be advanced by another Putin foreign-policy triumph? Having already given new meaning to the term incompetence in its dealings in the Middle East, the administration may be about to make things even worse.

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Clinton Unwittingly Makes Case Against Administration’s Mideast Policy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with top Israeli officials yesterday, and made a powerful case against a renewed push for the peace process. She didn’t mean to, of course; she was actually exhorting the Israeli leadership to do whatever they must to get Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. But she employed two arguments in support of her recommendation that in reality work against it. Haaretz reports:

According to an Israeli official who was briefed on the content of the meetings, Clinton told the different Israeli officials that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are the best partners the Israelis ever had, adding that “it is unclear who will come after them.”

If Abbas and Fayyad–who resolutely refuse to even meet with Israeli leaders face to face–are the best Palestinian “peace partners” Israel has ever had, it is clear the peace process has gone practically nowhere since it began. But the second comment is more important.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with top Israeli officials yesterday, and made a powerful case against a renewed push for the peace process. She didn’t mean to, of course; she was actually exhorting the Israeli leadership to do whatever they must to get Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. But she employed two arguments in support of her recommendation that in reality work against it. Haaretz reports:

According to an Israeli official who was briefed on the content of the meetings, Clinton told the different Israeli officials that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are the best partners the Israelis ever had, adding that “it is unclear who will come after them.”

If Abbas and Fayyad–who resolutely refuse to even meet with Israeli leaders face to face–are the best Palestinian “peace partners” Israel has ever had, it is clear the peace process has gone practically nowhere since it began. But the second comment is more important.

Clinton came to Israel directly from Egypt, where she met with new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Morsi is there because the Egyptian people finally overthrew a widely hated autocrat who was viewed, in part, as too friendly to Israel and the West. Israel’s gas deal with Egypt seemed to go up in smoke–literally–and the vaunted peace agreement, in place for more than three decades now, was called into question. Egyptians first called for it to be torn up, then renegotiated, and now Morsi says he will uphold it, but he won’t return any of the Israeli government’s overtures to him.

It’s possible to see in the evolution of Cairo’s discussion of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty evidence that the deal is in no real trouble of being revoked (though it may be violated with far more regularity). But that misses a larger point. The Arab Spring, especially in the case of Egypt, taught us not to rely on seemingly stable dictators who don’t rule with popular consent. And it should be a dire warning against striking a deal with unpopular leaders who don’t represent public opinion and who are here today, but may very well be gone tomorrow.

Obviously, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are still far from a deal–possibly farther than they’ve ever been. But what if the Arab Spring rolls along into the West Bank? And even if it doesn’t, there is no reason to treat the current leadership crop as permanent. What happens if they fall? What guarantee is there that any deal would be worth the paper it was written on? The fact that Abbas and Fayyad are unpopular, ineffective, and could be replaced any day by Palestinians to whom the deal would mean nothing is an argument against making any sort of desperate push to get a deal signed. Clinton should be pressuring Abbas and Fayyad to reform their corrupt, autocratic ways if real peace and stability is the goal.

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Lieberman Plays the Optimist on Egypt

In what may well be one more ominous sign of the impending collapse of the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt announced that it was abrogating a 2005 deal to ship natural gas to Israel. Coming as it does in the midst of an Egyptian presidential election in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s remaining candidate in the race is the favorite and with virtually all sides in the country’s political system expressing hostility to Israel, it’s hard to take the stated reason for the decision — a payment dispute — at face value.

But while some in Israel are taking a dark view of the situation, one person who might be expected to see things in the harshest possible terms is sounding an optimistic note. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man regarded by most foreign observers as an extreme reactionary as well as a bull in a china shop, downplayed the Egyptian decision and said it was just a business dispute that could be resolved. This reaction tell us a lot about how badly the chattering classes have underestimated Lieberman as well as perhaps providing some basis for optimism that despite the grim political situation in Egypt, there is some hope that the peace with Israel can be salvaged. Lieberman clearly understands that the pipeline deal is the nexus of two unpopular yet unrelated issues: peace and the corruption of the Mubarak regime.

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In what may well be one more ominous sign of the impending collapse of the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt announced that it was abrogating a 2005 deal to ship natural gas to Israel. Coming as it does in the midst of an Egyptian presidential election in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s remaining candidate in the race is the favorite and with virtually all sides in the country’s political system expressing hostility to Israel, it’s hard to take the stated reason for the decision — a payment dispute — at face value.

But while some in Israel are taking a dark view of the situation, one person who might be expected to see things in the harshest possible terms is sounding an optimistic note. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man regarded by most foreign observers as an extreme reactionary as well as a bull in a china shop, downplayed the Egyptian decision and said it was just a business dispute that could be resolved. This reaction tell us a lot about how badly the chattering classes have underestimated Lieberman as well as perhaps providing some basis for optimism that despite the grim political situation in Egypt, there is some hope that the peace with Israel can be salvaged. Lieberman clearly understands that the pipeline deal is the nexus of two unpopular yet unrelated issues: peace and the corruption of the Mubarak regime.

The pipeline, which has been repeatedly sabotaged by terrorists, is a symbol of the close economic relations that were developed between Israel and Egypt. But the gas deal also cannot be properly understood outside of the context of the kleptocracy that operated under the aegis of the former dictator. Egyptians have good reason to believe that Mubarak’s cronies were skimming the profits of the commerce and that the state was cheated. Lieberman may well believe it is in Israel’s interest to try to renegotiate so as to disassociate itself from the old regime.

The equanimity with which Israeli leaders regard the gas shutoff — which provided 40 percent of its natural gas and approximately a third of its overall fuel supply — is also testimony to their confidence in projects that are aimed at bolstering the Jewish state’s energy independence. With its own plans to exploit natural gas fields as well as shale oil deposits, some believe Israel will be able to eventually shed its dependence on foreign supplies.

But whether or not that optimistic scenario will play out any time soon, Lieberman deserves credit for not flying off the handle and for demonstrating a nuanced view of the problem. While Americans disdained him as a foreign policy nonentity and an obstacle to diplomacy, Lieberman has actually demonstrated some real skill during his three-year tenure at the ministry. His handling of the so-called “diplomatic tsunami” that was supposed to hit Israel because of the Palestinians’ independence initiative at the United Nations was masterful. Where possible, he has strengthened unilateral relations with a wide variety of nations as well as speaking up strongly on Israel’s behalf when challenged. Though he is still operating under a cloud of corruption investigations rather than his service at the Foreign Ministry exposing him as an incompetent as his detractors hoped, it has served to burnish his reputation as a smart operator.

That said, confidence in the ability or the willingness of the Egyptian government that will emerge from the coming elections to sign a new gas deal with Israel seems misplaced. Though Israeli leaders are right to say nothing right now that could exacerbate the situation, there is little reason to believe that the deterioration in what was already an ice-cold peace will reverse itself. Egypt’s new Islamist government may well stop short of formally breaking the peace treaty with Israel because of the consequences that would generate in terms of the billions they get in U.S. aid, but there is no question the hostility in Cairo toward Israel is going to get much worse.

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