With Egypt’s first democratic elections ending in a landslide win for the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States has decided to open formal discussions with the Islamist group. Israel has also relaxed its years-long resistance to engaging with the political movement.
American Jewish organizations, however, remain reluctant to reach out to the Brotherhood because of its harsh anti-Israel rhetoric and its threat to end Egypt’s peaceful relations with Israel.
Some scholars believe that the Jewish community is missing out on a historic opportunity to improve relations with the party that seems poised to shape the Middle East’s largest Arab country for years to come.
“This is very important for the Jewish community in order to better understand them,” said Marshall Breger, who has been at the forefront of Jewish interfaith dialogue efforts. Breger, a law professor at the Catholic University of America, added that American Jews should “approach the Brotherhood cautiously, but begin a dialogue on the basis of Judaism and Islam.”
With the political situation in Egypt still in flux, some experts believe that American Jewish groups should reach out to the Brotherhood as soon as possible.
“It would make sense,” said Nathan Brown, a George Washington University expert on Middle East politics who has maintained contacts with Brotherhood activists throughout the years.
According to Brown, the Ikhwan, as the Brotherhood is called in Arabic, is being torn between its wish to show a pragmatic approach toward global politics in order to prove it is suitable for governing the country and a fear of being viewed as a puppet of Western governments.
Outreach to Jewish groups, even informal ones, could prove valuable to the Brotherhood as it seeks to burnish its image as a mature political force. It also could help enhance its diplomatic status as it prepares to enter the world stage.
Contact with Jewish communal leaders could prove an ideal forum for the Brotherhood to engage the West because it would not carry the stigma of official diplomatic interaction with governments.
“Jewish groups are unofficial players, and the Egyptians can say they are religious American leaders, not representatives of the government,” Brown explained, adding that Jewish groups could serve as a back channel for discussions on relations between Israel and the Brotherhood, since such an unofficial track could provide “complete deniability.”
According to this school of thought, Jewish groups could serve as the ideal counterpart for the Ikhwan, since both sides are able to discuss current political issues from a religious standpoint.
The Brotherhood, through its political affiliate, the Freedom and Justice Party, dominated Egypt’s first parliamentary elections after the Arab Spring revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It is emerging as the largest political group in the country. Many in the West view the Brotherhood as extremist. It has historic ties with the Hamas movement in Gaza and rejects Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
American Jewish organizations have thus far chosen to avoid contacts with the Brotherhood, which currently does not have official representatives in Washington. While in other cases, Jewish groups have been willing to reach out in some way to most political players in the Middle East, no such outreach efforts have been made in the case of Egypt.
“It is too early,” said a Jewish activist who is with a large group and asked not to be identified. “The situation over there is in flux, and no one knows who is in charge and what they are thinking.”
For others, the troubling rhetoric coming out of Brotherhood circles makes it impossible to consider entering into talks with the group.
“For the same reasons you should not negotiate with Hamas or with the Nazis, you should not negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, explaining that speaking to the Ikhwan would “just legitimize them and their extreme platform.”
While Klein’s language may be harsher than most Jewish groups would choose, his objection to engaging with the Brotherhood represents the current dominant view within the Jewish organized community.
This objection runs counter to the new policy of America’s administration, which permits talks with the Brotherhood and sees value in discussing issues relating to Israel with members of what is shaping up to be the biggest political party in Egypt.
The United States refrained from engaging with the Brotherhood in previous years, fearing that it would irritate Mubarak, who was a close ally of the United States. But after Mubarak’s fall, American policy began shifting gradually, and in recent months Washington held working-level meetings with Brotherhood officials. Jeffrey Feltman, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s top Middle East adviser, led the disucssions.
These talks, the State Department believes, put to rest concerns from the United States and Israel that the Brotherhood will move to cancel Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. “We have had other assurances from the party with regard to their commitment not only to universal human rights, but to the international obligations that the government of Egypt has undertaken,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a January 5 press briefing.
But pro-Israel activists point to other statements coming from the Brotherhood, which indicate that the group views the peace treaty as “unbinding” and will refuse to recognize Israel under any circumstances.
Israel itself has adopted a practical approach to the Brotherhood and has allowed its ambassador in Cairo to engage in talks with members of the group, according to a recent press report. This could be an empty gesture at this point, since the Ikhwan has made it clear that it would not meet with any Israeli official.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.