According to the Wall Street Journal, Israel, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is gung-ho for the Egyptian army’s bloody campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. This, the Journal reports, “has pulled Israel into ever-closer alignment with those Gulf states.” Yes, concurs, the New York Times, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE support “the Egyptian military and sought to push back against Western entreaties that it temper its actions against the Brotherhood and the ousted government of President Mohamed Morsi and his supporters.”
We know the Arab Gulf states support Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s putsch because, as the Times and Journal report, they’ve given or pledged a total of $12 billion to Egypt. There’s no similar evidence that Israel backs the junta—unlike the Gulf states, Jerusalem has given no money. There is no official statement from the government of Israel that it supports the army, nor are there even any sourced quotes to substantiate the rather extraordinary claim that both articles make: Israel and the White House are at odds because while Obama is quietly considering the moral and strategic consequences of being seen to support Sisi’s crackdown, the Jewish state is cheering on a pogrom.
Nonetheless, according to the press, the same dynamic is at work closer to home, where America’s pro-Israel community also wants to see Sisi prevail, regardless of the bloodshed. The Egyptian army has a new best friend in Washington, says a story in Foreign Policy. Even with Washington’s $1.3 billion package coming under “global criticism,” AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—“is actively pushing for continued U.S. aid to Egypt.”
Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast finds the whole matter repulsive. “Israel,” he writes dejectedly, “wants the military to remain in charge.”
To be sure, some former Israeli officials do. Ehud Barak recently said on Fareed Zakaria GPS that, “the whole world should support Sisi.” Similarly, Ex-Mossad chief Danny Yatom argued that, “there is no question that Israel prefers the army to the Muslim Brotherhood and a secular regime over a religious regime.”
However, no one currently serving in the Israeli government is on the record for supporting Sisi against the Brotherhood. And for good reason—Israel, regardless of how it may reckon the morality of its neighbors, is not a superpower but a small state of some 6 million Jews and a million and half Arabs with virtually no ability to tinker with the internal mechanisms of other Middle Eastern countries. Accordingly, Israel keeps its head down, hoping for the best and planning for the worst, because, as one Israeli official told the Times last week: “Anything we say will be held against us. . . . If we condemn the violence we will be accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.” And if they don’t, he explained, “then it looks like Israel is in cahoots with the Egyptian Army.”
Israel has one key interest in Egypt, maintenance of the peace treaty. The treaty, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Face the Nation last month, has “been the cornerstone of peace between us and our neighbors, and it's also been the cornerstone of stability in the Middle East. And our concern, through changing administrations—first Mubarak changed; Morsi came; now Morsi went, and we will see what develops in Egypt.”
Consequently, Israel, unlike the Arab states to which the Times and the Journal compared it, doesn’t tell the United States which side to take. Consider, for instance, the Arab approach. Joining the growing trend of Arab officials openly threatening the United States for its stand on Egypt, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal recently heaped abuse on America. “All countries that take such negative attitudes toward Egypt should know that the blaze and ruin will not be limited to Egypt alone,” said Faisal, “but they will be reflected on all those who have contributed or stood by problems and disorders taking place in Egypt today.”
In short, Israel backs the peace treaty, and so does AIPAC, which lobbied to maintain the aid to Egypt when Morsi was in power, even as there was growing sentiment on the Hill that the administration should suspend the package.
The purpose of attributing to Israel ideas it does not hold and policies it does not have is to clarify the policy debate here in the United States. For those who believe that Israel is a pariah state liable to cling to any manifestation of moral turpitude in order to preserve its illegitimate existence, the notion that Israel backs the army makes the decision easy: Stand with the Brotherhood. The reverse holds for many in the pro-Israel community—because the Muslim Brotherhood is a patently anti-Semitic organization that revels in the prospect, and reality, or murdering Jews, Sisi is a champion. Both sides of this debate are far removed from the realities of the Middle East, and more particularly the history of Israel-Egypt relations.
It wasn’t the Muslim Brotherhood that threw Jews out of Egypt in the 1950s, and it wasn’t a gang of Islamic revivalists who declared war on the Jewish state in 1967 and 1973. It was Egypt’s military regime, a legacy now in the care of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It’s true that Hosni Mubarak and his security chief Omar Suleiman hated Hamas, but Morsi and the Brotherhood, who share blood ties with the Islamic resistance, were compelled by reasons of national interest, and regime security, to stand against Hamas during Israel’s campaign in Gaza last autumn. There is no telling how long that state of affairs might have lasted—just as there is no telling how long Israel will continue to enjoy good relations with Egypt’s military and security establishment.
Unlike Americans on both sides of the debate who enjoy the luxury of large swaths of the globe separating them from the region, Israelis can scarcely afford the illusion of imagining that their security now rests with the army of Egypt. It rests with the peace treaty, which is underwritten less by the $1.3 billion in aid that the United States provides Egypt than by America’s ability to project power. Insofar as the White House believes it has little ability to shape the outcome in Egypt, it is telling, among others, the man who now runs the most populous Arab state that the United States is a bystander. By lobbying for the peace treaty, even under Morsi and now Sisi, Israel and AIPAC seek to wake the White House from its slumber: remember, you are the power-broker in the Middle East. The aid after all buys considerably less than what it did when the treaty was first signed three decades ago, but it is a token of your prestige, a commodity beyond compare. Wake up, America.
For all practical purposes, the Muslim Brotherhood is in the rearview mirror—at least for now. They’ll likely rise again, more experienced and more violent, but in the meantime they have little to no say over Egypt’s direction. That’s all in the hands of the army. Thus, the scorecard that many Americans have been keeping—who to love, army or the Brotherhood?—is not only callous but irrelevant. The issue rather is Sisi, who having made war on his fellow Egyptians is by no means unlikely to open up an external front.