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ISRAEL: Is the U.S. attitude to Egypt a message?

January 31, 2011 |  1:30 pm

The U.S. position on Egypt has taken Israel by surprise and left people wondering what the Americans are doing and what this means for other allies in the region, including Israel.

When the administration first urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to address demonstrators' legitimate demands, commentators in Israel were puzzled, almost appalled.  OK, Mubarak's s not perfect, but why would America think his replacement would be any more democratic or pro-Western? Once again, the Americans are looking at the region through Western eyes and clearly, they don't know what they're doing, was the tone of many Israeli analysts. Politicians are not talking much about the crisis.

As the protests continued, some began thinking maybe Obama does know what he's doing — but they're not sure they like it.

"A knife in the back," was how Dan Margalit of the Yisrael Hayom free-sheet described the American treatment of Mubarak. "Obama threw Mubarak to the dogs," wrote Eitan Haber in Yediot Aharonot. Others were more subtle but most share the opinion that the Obama administration is sending its partners in the Middle East a message through Egypt.

Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad and a highly respected former diplomat, said he's having a hard time understanding some of the American moves, reminding that Egypt was a key strategic partner to them too. But, Halevy notes, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that all strategic alliances are conditional, as in both "temporary" and with actual "conditions." American conditions, at least in principle, are democracy and rights.

But only Mubarak is getting read the riot act, which suggests to Halevy that this isn't a principled move but a practical one, with a specific purpose. The question is, what does Obama think he will get in return.  "Obama is not naive; this is a gamble," Halevy said.

Uzi Rabi, head of Middle East and Africa studies at Tel-Aviv University, notes that this sends a "very negative message." Shaking off Mubarak in rather a cruel way should raise questions in other Arab countries who dwell "under the American umbrella," Rabi said, adding that this might cause leaders to calculate their moves differently as part of the geopolitical change the region is undergoing.

Does this include Israel?

There are many lessons to be had from the events in Egypt events — and Israel needs to learn some of them yesterday, according to Eitan Haber, former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Unlike his predecessors, the current U.S. president has no sentiments for Israel, he writes. Watching him sell Mubarak down the river "in return for popularity with the masses", Israel's lesson should be "that the man in the White House could sell us from one day to the next." The thought that the U.S. might not be there for Israel on D-day is "chilling," he wrote.

But others see possible opportunity here. Commentator Aluf Benn writes that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plays his cards right, he could leverage the fall of neighboring regimes to significantly improve relations with the U.S. 

Historian Shlomo Ben-Ami, former foreign minister and past diplomat, says that while Israeli-American relations aren't a "kushan" — the Ottoman term for a land-deed still widely used in Israel — or handed down from Mt. Sinai, they consist not only of strategic components but more deep-seated issues. The tough message should resonate with the Saudis, Persian Gulf states, Morocco and other pro-Western dictatorships "who see the ease with which they can be dropped."

His view is that the U.S. is facing the consequences of its efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Mubarak and others understood that Washington wanted two things of them — support of the peace process, and reforms. Mubarak played the game, hosted summits and mediated talks that came to naught in order to get demands for reform off his back. But now that the pressure for reform is coming from the bottom up, the U.S. is pushing too because it doesn't want to lose ties with the next regime, Ben-Ami said.

Shaul Mishal, an expert on Islamic movements at Tel-Aviv university, offered an interesting take on what the U.S. is doing. Israel looks at the region through the "villa in the jungle" perspective, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak often puts it. But Obama views Islam differently, undeterred and without hang-ups. Mishal believes the U.S. is experimenting with a new model it is pursuing in the Middle East, a viable combination between civil government and Islam, which different countries will be able to contain to different degrees and in different ways. Obama is beginning to implement his intellectual-cultural world view as per his Cairo speech, Mishal said, and he's starting with Egypt.

2011 is shaping up as a pivotal year in many respects, says lawmaker Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and chief of staff. Though Israel should stay out of it, it should pay attention to the winds blowing from Washington, "whether we like them or not."

As for those winds coming from the West, Israel is discreetly asking the world to chill a bit on the public criticism of Mubarak, for stability's sake.

RELATED

Egypt's police return, protests continue

Egyptian army calls protests freedom of speech

U.S. cautiously prepares for post-Mubarak era

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

 

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