Washington — The debate over whether the United States should continue military aid to Egypt is roiling Washington; pitting political idealists against realists; separating liberals, conservatives and neoconservatives — and dividing supporters of Israel.
Israel and the lobby backing it in the United States have made clear that they oppose suspension of aid to Cairo, fearing that it would endanger the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and undermine Egyptian forces that are cooperating with Israel. But some traditional backers of Israel, including political conservatives, are arguing in favor of punishing the Egyptian interim government for its bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, citing the need to take a moral stand even at the cost of ignoring concerns voiced by Israel.
In Egypt, the future of relations with Israel is largely viewed as marginal to the broader struggle over its national identity. But in the United States, the Israel issue has become one of the key arguments for maintaining aid to the controversial Egyptian regime.
The United States has provided Egypt with more than $71 billion since 1948. The majority of that aid has been delivered after Egypt signed the 1979 Camp David peace accords with Israel.
Though not a formal part of the accords, the aid was intended to serve as a sweetener and to compensate both sides for costs they’d incur as a result of signing the peace treaty. For Israel, those costs included relocating air forces bases from Sinai and redeploying along the new border; for Egypt, the aid was meant to boost its economy and to compensate for losing trade with the Arab League nations following its accord with Israel.
Originally, the aid was based on a 3-2 ratio in favor of Israel. In the past decade, the ratio has shifted even more toward Israel, which now receives double the aid given to Egypt.
“The Israelis reached the conclusion that the ratio set in 1979 inhibited the amount of the aid they can get,” said Graeme Bannerman, a former State Department official who later worked as a lobbyist for Egypt in Washington.
In the last fiscal year, America gave Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid and an additional $250 million in civilian economic assistance. The aid package is composed primarily of American-made weapon systems, including advanced F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters and Abrams tanks, as well as ammunition and spare parts.
(Israel is permitted to spend a small part of its aid money on its own weaponry.)
Since the June 30 protests and the July 3 military ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel has signaled that it wants aid to Egypt maintained. Although Israeli officials were careful not to speak out directly about the internal strife in Egypt, unnamed government sources were quoted in the Israeli and international press in favor of upholding American aid and stressing the need to strengthen the Egyptian army.
Before the latest events, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee opposed cutting aid in a letter sent to leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Events in Egypt are rapidly evolving, and we believe that for now the United States should avoid taking any precipitous actions against Egypt, such as cutting off all assistance,” the letter stated.
The appeal was a response to a proposed amendment by Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, calling for a suspension of aid to Egypt because of the military coup. The amendment was tabled July 31 with only 13 senators, all Republicans, voting in favor.
But the bloody crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt shifted political views on the future of aid and led Israel and its supporters to abstain from making public statements.
Meantime, the neoconservatives who are usually on Israel’s side are split on this issue.
Douglas Feith, a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration, told the Forward that he opposed cutting aid to Egypt because of America’s “certain affinity of interests with the [Egyptian] military.” But fellow neoconservative Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that U.S. law requires an immediate suspension of assistance to Egypt, though he does not rule out resuming aid in the future if Egyptian rulers met conditions set by the president and Congress.
And Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who hardly ever break ranks with AIPAC, issued a call demanding that the administration cut its aid to Egypt.
Israel’s key concern is that slashing aid to Egypt will undermine the country’s military, which has ensured quiet along the border for more than three decades. If American aid is cut, warned Karim Haggag, an Egyptian visiting professor at the National Defense University, “you might see a public debate on adhering to the peace treaty.”
This, Haggag noted, would not necessarily force an immediate decision on the future of relations with Israel, “but it opens the debate.”
On a formal level, since the aid package is not officially part of the Camp David accords, withholding assistance would not serve as a legal excuse for suspending Egypt’s commitments under the peace treaty.
Experts believe the peace treaty will survive a downgrade in American-Egyptian ties, mainly because maintaining peaceful relations with Israel is no less in Egypt’s interest than it is in the interest of Israel and the United States.
“The reason there is no armed conflict between Egypt and Israel is that [the Egyptians] think they’ll lose,” May said. “That understanding is what leads Egypt to keep its peace with Israel.”
Other observers agree that most parties in Egypt do not question the peace treaty with Israel because of the international and military price Egypt will have to pay for violating it. “I have no doubt the Egyptians will continue to honor the peace treaty with Israel because it is seen as good for Egypt,” Bannerman said.
American aid to Egypt, supporters of continuing assistance say, not only strengthens the Camp David accords but also empowers those who believe in peace with Israel. “Aid itself doesn’t promise anything,” Feith said, “but if you maintain the aid, it helps those who want to maintain the treaty with Israel.”
But Aaron Miller, a former State Department peace negotiator who now serves as vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, fears that cutting Egyptian aid would send a problematic message to Israel as it attempts to reach a similar accord with the Palestinians. That’s because, he argues, if America suspended foreign aid to Egypt, it may indicate that America cannot be trusted to keep its side of any deal.
“What would be Israel’s ability to make concessions on the Palestinian front if the bulwark of support for peace on the Egyptian front begins to break?” Miller asked.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman