Israel is incapable of understanding the reservations that the United States has when confronting the ferocious civil war in Egypt. This is glaringly obvious, and can be seen in a series of disdainful questions asked by the Israeli media: “What’s the matter with those self-righteous Americans?” or “How can the administration even consider imposing sanctions against the acting regime in Egypt, which is doing all the dirty work for it?” Questions such as these came up again and again in TV studios and newspapers alike.
“What does [President Barack] Obama even know about the Middle East? How can the US not cheer on the Egyptian army, which is taking resolute action against a movement that operates a terrorist branch that gave rise to Osama bin Laden and his supporters?” Yes, this was said by news commentators, but the question marks were inserted into the discussion by senior figures in the political and security establishment. They could not say publicly what they really felt about how the Obama administration’s stance would impact events in Egypt and Israel’s security situation.
At the same time, a widespread information campaign was launched, using the American media to present the “sane” and highly experienced Israeli approach to an administration that is struggling to make up its mind. News of this Israeli campaign, whether real or not, was leaked by unknown Israeli sources to The New York Times. According to the report, Israel intends to launch an information campaign in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, London and other Western capitals. During the campaign, ambassadors and senior Israeli diplomats would meet with the foreign ministers of the target countries to claim that the Egyptian army offers the only hope of preventing further chaos in Egypt, and that chaos in Egypt would impact the entire Middle East.
According to a report in the American newspaper, Israel promised the new regime in Cairo that it would use all its power and influence to prevent any cuts to the aid that the Egyptians receive from the United States. You call that a cold peace? To me it looks more like the start of a beautiful friendship.
Do the people who came up with this campaign really believe that the foreign ministers of Europe and senior officials in Washington are awaiting Israeli insights before formulating their position over what is happening in Egypt? What would Daniel Taub, Israel’s ambassador to London, have to say to British Foreign Secretary William Hague, for example? Would he ask his colleague to ignore the live ammunition that the Egyptian army is firing at fanatical Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators and the many hundreds of casualties resulting from this, in order to prevent even worse chaos in the future? Would he recommend that the British government pressure the Obama administration to let the Egyptian army finish the job, even if it means momentarily forgetting about democratic values and all the other cornerstones of US foreign policy? And how did Israel suddenly transform itself from a nation on the verge of international isolation, particularly in Europe, to a country whose ambassadors brief the foreign ministers of other countries to get them to change their worldview?
Israel has also made sure to have a safety net ready in case the campaign fails. One senior Israel official told Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal that if the US doesn’t back the Egyptian army, it is risking an end to the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. “Good luck with your peace efforts,” a senior Israeli official threatened superciliously, who considers the peace negotiations as nothing more than some American aspiration, and not necessarily a vital Israeli interest.
Based on all these leaks and threats, it seems as if Israeli foreign policymakers fail to understand the American position. Moreover, they do not understand the basic moral values underlying American policy.
How can they sell the American and international public the idea that what happens in Egypt today serves the interest of democracy and is being done in its name? Who really thinks that the Obama administration, or any other American administration for that matter, can change its position overnight? How can anyone who claims to be the leader of the free world ignore the mass killing of demonstrators by a well-equipped army, especially when it happens day after day? And what kind of distinction can possibly be drawn between the Egyptian army slaughtering its citizens and the Syrian army slaughtering its citizens?
Last week I argued on this very site that the United States must stop American aid to Egypt retroactively until the violence is over. This is not intended to hurt Egypt but rather to set down a red line so that no one there is quite as trigger happy in the future. The chaos in Egypt provides fertile ground for the radical Islam of the global jihad. The same thing happened in Syria, and the same thing happened in Iraq (as the Americans learned on their flesh). The very idea that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s harsh policies would make the Muslim Brotherhood vanish is reminiscent of the common Israeli mistake that the Hamas movement can be wiped out in a single day. The problem is that it is too deeply entrenched in Palestinian society.
So what’s the right response? There is no clear answer to this question. No expert in the world can foresee where Egypt goes from here, and how the events of today will impact the Middle East. Any Israeli advising the Obama administration to keep its eyes wide shut until the army finishes up its dirty work should probably think again. Not every aggressive policy is necessarily a sensible policy, no matter how resolutely it is enforced.
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.