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Dilemma of pro-Israel groups: To talk Egypt or not

Pro-Israel groups are caught in a dilemma over whether to back Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or his opponents, such as those seen here gathering in Cairo on Jan. 25, 2011 to call for his ouster. (Muhammad Ghafari)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — As Egypt convulses, pro-Israel groups and U.S. Congress members are seized by the ancient maternal dilemma: If you have nothing nice to say, should you say anything at all?

The question of whether to stake a claim in the protests against 30 years of President Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy is a key one for the pro-Israel lobby and pro-Israel lawmakers because of the role they have played in making Egypt one of the greatest beneficiaries of U.S. aid.

And in the same way that the outcome in Egypt continues to idle in the gear of  “anyone’s guess,” there is little consensus in the byways of pro-Israel Washington over how to treat the nation and its nascent revolution.

The competing claims were evident in the divergent, and at times contrasting, calls issuing from figures known for their closeness to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the trendsetter in the pro-Israel community. In general, reactions to the unrest in Egypt crossed political lines, with some liberal and conservative commentators pressing the Obama administration to help topple the regime, and others stressing the need for stability.

Some AIPAC-related called for assistance to Egypt to be contingent on whether the emerging government remained committed to cooperation with Israel. Others were emphatic in omitting Israel as a consideration, saying it was not the place of Israel or its friends to intervene in what appears to be an organic shucking-off of a dictator.

Josh Block, AIPAC’s former spokesman who is still close to the lobby, said the commitment of whatever government emerges to peace with Israel should be a critical element in considering whether to continue the $1.5 billion Egypt receives in aid, much of it in defense assistance.

“Given what’s taking place, it’s appropriate for the U.S. government to be reviewing U.S. aid to Egypt,” said Block, now a senior fellow at the centrist Progressive Policy Institute and principal at the consulting firm Davis-Block. “No matter what happens, clearly one of the top criteria Congress is likely to use is Egypt’s approach to its peace treaty obligations with Israel.”

That seemed to be the tack adopted by U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the foreign operations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. She framed her statement in the context of the 1979 Camp David peace accords with Israel, which is the basis for Egypt’s status as one of the top recipients of U.S. aid.

“Ever since the historic Camp David peace accords more than 30 years ago, Egypt and the United States have been partners in seeking a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said. “It is in the interest of the United States and regional stability that this period of turmoil and uncertainty be resolved peacefully and that Egypt remain a strong ally.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took that posture further, saying in a statement that U.S. assistance should be contingent on an election that allows only parties that recognize Egypt’s “peace agreement with the Jewish State of Israel.”

Such cautions are fueled by fears of the role the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood might play in a new Egypt. Other pro-Israel lawmakers notably omitted reference to the peace with Israel in their statements.

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Middle East subcommittee, called for a suspension of assistance to Egypt until Mubarak left — and then its renewal once a transitional government was in place, whatever its makeup.

“I believe the United States must suspend its assistance to Egypt until this transition is under way,” said the statement from Ackerman, who is Jewish and a pro-Israel stalwart.

In an interview, Ackerman said the omission of an Israel reference was deliberate.

“I understand the angst and anxiety that exists in Israel, but we’re not going to pick the next leader of Egypt,” he said.

Instead, Ackerman said, the United States should use what he said was a closing window of opportunity, and side pronouncedly with the people and against Mubarak.

“If we sign the people of Egypt up as lobbyists, they will do the right thing,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who is also Jewish and the ranking member on the Foreign Affairs committee and the author of last year’s sweeping Iran sanctions law, also kept Israel out of his statement. Unlike Ackerman, however, he said assistance should continue as a means of stabilizing the Egyptian military.

“So long as the Egyptian military plays a constructive role in bringing about a democratic transition, the United States should also remain committed to our ongoing assistance programs for Egypt, both military and civilian,” he said.

Betting on the military was perhaps the only certainty in the current chaos, said David Schenker, an Egypt expert at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank The Egyptian army is popular among Egyptians and, unlike the hated police, has taken steps during the uprising not to alienate the street.

“The arbitrator of this may be the military,” Schenker said. “It doesn’t want to cede power to a civilian power that’s Islamist. The army has entrenched interests with this regime and likes very much its relations with the U.S. military.”

Egypt’s potential collapse triggered an intense “who’s to blame” debate in Washington over which party or group had done more to prop up Mubarak’s regime. One emerging theme was that more should have been done to use aid as leverage to nudge Mubarak toward democratization.

Pro-Israel congressional insiders said there had always been talk throughout the years of shifting funds from defense aid to democratization assistance, at times from unlikely bedfellows: Ros-Lehtinen and the Zionist Organization of America had backed such a shift, but so had the former Appropriations chairman, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), a frequent Israel critic.

Such initiatives were abandoned, the insiders said, both in Congress and in the Bush White House after Hamas won elections in the Gaza Strip.

In a hearing on Egypt assistance in May 2006, just after the Hamas victory, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), the lawmaker who is perhaps closest to Israel, made this aside: “I am wondering if I need a change in the way I think about the Middle East and about democratizing nations that are no more ready for democracy than the man on the moon.”

The remark made headlines in Egypt.

Now some pro-Israel voices are saying that not pushing for democracy has disastrous consequences — including critics of the regime. For example, the ZOA, which has frequently accused the Egyptian government of undermining peace and pressed for a reduction in U.S. military aid, now is calling for the Obama administration to do everything it can to keep the regime in place, with Mubarak or one of his associates in charge.

Obama “should be showing some loyalty to a regime with which we have had good relations for 30 years,” ZOA President Mort Klein said. “If we have elections in the near future, you’re going to have a result like in Gaza. Of course I want democracy, but I don’t want democracy when the results support Islamic takeover.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the Yeshiva World News that the United States should have been working more proactively to ensure an orderly transition to democracy.

“This is something that we knew was coming — we should have been working at it all along,” Hoenlein said, adding that the Bush administration had paid lip service to the notion of building democratic institutions and the Obama administration not even that.

Hoenlein warned against the emergence in Egypt of possible transition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, saying he covered up Iran’s true nuclear weaponization capacities while he directed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

“He is a stooge of Iran, and I don’t use the term lightly,” Hoenlein said. “He fronted for them, he distorted the reports.”

ElBaradei, who directed the IAEA from 1997 to 2009, returned to Egypt following his third term. Soon he was touted as a possible challenger to Mubarak’s autocractic reign and has emerged during the protests as a consensus figure.

During his term as IAEA chief, ElBaradei said Iran was further away from a nuclear weapon than many in the West claimed and castigated Western powers, including Israel, for suggesting that a military option against Iran was increasingly possible. He made it clear in those statements that his posture stemmed from the U.S. failure to heed warnings from him and other weapons experts that Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons capacity.

ElBaradei also has been cool to Israel, however, and has infuriated Israel’s military establishment by saying that Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal undercuts efforts to keep Iran and other countries from going nuclear.

In an interview with The Washington Post just before he retired, he said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not want to get rid of Israel, but to replace it with a non-Jewish state — two concepts Israelis and pro-Israel groups see as synonymous.

Hoenlein was not alone. Reporters were bombarded this week by e-mail from pro-Israel groups with ElBaradei quotes that appeared hostile to the United States. In some cases, however, the quotes were taken out of context and questionably sourced.

Keith Weissman, a former AIPAC lobbyist and analyst who witnessed the Iranian Revolution unfold and who has lived in Egypt, said the warnings about ElBaradei were overheated.

“From what I see in Cairo there is no evidence he is on an Iranian agenda,” he said

Weissman said the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the opposition alliance ElBaradei is leading should not be a cause for concern.

“In a post-Mubarak Egypt, you’d want the Brothehood close,” he said.

In any case, meddling is counterproductive, said Lara Friedman, the legislative director for Americans for Peace Now, writing in an op-ed for JTA.

“Denying the reality of change in Egypt does not help Israel; it only guarantees that Israel’s future relationship with Egypt will be more difficult,” she said.