The Republican foreign policy establishment, headed by luminaries such as Senator John McCain and former White House official Elliott Abrams, is urging an immediate cutoff of U.S. military aid to Egypt in response to the country’s revolution-cum-coup. The Obama administration has demurred, saying “it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program,” and vowed to take its time in deciding whether what happened legally mandates an aid cutoff, given the “significant consequences that go along with this determination.”
For once, official Israel is wholeheartedly on Obama’s side. Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down spent hours on the phone with their American counterparts this weekend to argue against an aid cutoff, and Israeli diplomats in Washington have been ordered to make this case to Congress as well. Israel’s reasoning is simple: An aid cutoff will make the volatile situation on its southern border even worse–and that is bad not only for Israel, but for one of America’s major interests in the region: upholding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
To understand why, it’s important to realize that most Egyptians view the U.S. aid as “a kind of payment” for keeping the peace. Though the aid isn’t part of the treaty, it began immediately after the treaty was signed, and for 34 years, the only condition on its continuance has been continuation of the treaty. Thus Israel fears that ending the aid would erode Egyptian support for the treaty–and especially that of the army, which would be the main victim of the cutoff. Since the army is not only Egypt’s de facto ruler, but also the treaty’s main supporter in a country where most people would rather scrap it, that would clearly be undesirable.
What makes it downright dangerous, however, is the situation in Sinai. The army recently beefed up its forces in Sinai in an effort to suppress Islamist terror there, a move Israel obviously welcomed. Nevertheless, Sinai is low priority for the military compared to cities like Cairo and Alexandria. Thus given the perceived linkage between the aid and the treaty, an aid cutoff would likely make the army feel perfectly justified in removing those troops and ceasing its efforts to uphold its main treaty obligation: keeping peace along the border. And having already halted the aid, Washington would have no leverage to prevent this.
That would almost certainly lead to increased terror along Israel’s border. But the real danger, as I’ve explained before, is that cross-border attacks could easily spark an Israeli-Egyptian war that nobody wants–including the U.S. Since the Israeli army will naturally try to stop such attacks, there’s always a risk of Egyptians being accidentally killed in the cross-fire, which in turn would spur angry mobs in Egypt to demand revenge–exactly as happened in August 2011. That attack was an isolated incident, so sanity prevailed. But the more cross-border attacks there are, the more likely it is that one will inadvertently trigger a war.
This is especially true because, as Lee Smith argued last week, a war against Israel would be the one sure way to unite a dangerously divided Egyptian nation: The only thing most Egyptians agree on is that Israel is an “enemy” and a “threat.”
Continuing the aid is thus a small price to pay for preventing another Mideast war. And that’s something all Americans should be able to understand.