Breaking the US-Egypt-Israel triangle

It may be time to reflect a little on US Middle East policy post-Arab Spring, and towards Egypt in particular. I've just taken part in a seminar where I presented a paper on the issue, and I'll be expanding some of my main points in the next few weeks here. The main gist of it, however, is that US policy in the region has not been a great success for the last 20 years of American hegemony, is seen as tremendously destructive by local populations, and that the US should refrain from trying to shape the outcome of the ongoing transformations the region is experiencing. It should first re-assess what its priorities are and take stocks of its limitations, particularly considering the current imperial overstretch and budgetary tightening.

Nor do I think Washington needs to interfere in the internal developments of individual countries, but rather reassess its strategic posture region-wide and try to create the multilateral mechanism to handle the crises that will no doubt come up as the transformations continue. For me, this means something modelled on the Concert of Europe, which would rely on regional powers to offer solutions and mediation. I'll say more on that later.

One of the major issues the US will have to contemplate is Egyptian-Israeli relations, and the ongoing collapse of the Camp David framework that created a trilateral relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the US. Washington should not resist this: it will only make situation more brittle, and instead show the flexibility to reimagine its role in a post-Camp David Middle East.

One aspect of this is that aid and other aspects of relations between each country should be handled bilaterally. The aim should be to salvage peace between the two countries, but without the appendages and pressure on Egypt to support Israeli aims we saw in the last decade, when the Bush administration used the Mubarak regime's internal weakness (due to the succession struggle, in part). This might mean, for instance, giving the Egyptians room to remove or alter these aspects of the relationship:

  • The sale of oil and gas to Israel, now universally seen by Egyptians as a symbol of high-level corruption;
  • The level of diplomatic relations between the two countries;
  • Economic agreements such as QIZs that artificially induce Israeli-Egyptian economic cooperation;
  • Limits on Egyptian sovereignty in eastern Sinai, notably the ability to deploy troops and certain equipment there.

There is a real risk to the US' focus on the Israeli angle in its approach to Egypt: that it will repeat the same mistakes as before and contribute to the return of autocratic governement for the sake of Israel. We have already seen a US administration that has been silent about most of the post-Mubarak human rights abuse (12,000 cases to military tribunals, etc.) and the shoddy transition process put in place by SCAF, whereas it is willing to make statements on the Israeli embassy raid.

What I fear most is that concern over Camp David will lead Washington straight back to the relationship it had with Egypt under Mubarak. That relationship allowed both Egypt and Israel to escape the consequences of their actions, to the detriment of stated US policy goals in the region, while dragging the US further and further into complicity in the occupation of the Palestine (notably the joint US-Egyptian training program for US security forces, which effectively made Washington a partner in the policing of the West Bank.) It also created considerable resentment of the US for backing Mubarak, and made incoherent policies of democracy promotion. It is better to have an anti-Israel democratic Egypt than a pro-Israel autocratic one, particularly as in any case Egypt cannot afford, and does not want, conflict with Israel. What it does need is the ability to play the regional role it aspires to, and that might mean withdrawing an ambassador when something the like of the Gaza or Lebanon wars take place.

Indeed, there is an opportunity in an Egypt that is more assertive over Israel: since the US has proven, for political reasons, to be incapable of being assertive over Israel itself, it could lead to a less unhinged foreign policy from Tel Aviv. It could make policies that the US nominally supports, such as the Arab Peace Initiative, finally worth considering by Israeli politicians. The lesson here for all actors the US interacts with is that actions have consequences: for Israel, this means the occupation and its doctrines of collective punishment; for Egypt this should mean that a military caste cannot continue to effectively blackmail Washington over its attitude to Israel.

The same line of thinking should extend to US military aid and other measures: no disbursement of funds while the transition is as shoddy as it is now. Washington should show it has learned something from the Arab uprisings, and aid conditionality should become a standard. True, Congress will continue to be used by the Israeli lobby to either punish or reward Egypt's government. That is unavoidable. But an administration otherwise hampered by domestic politics in its ability to deal with Israel in a rational fashion can take the lead and do its best to disentangle its relationship with Egypt from its relationship with Israel.

Naturally, the Israel lobby in America is concerned about these developments. Robert Satloff of WINEP, the influential pro-Israel think tank, has penned a piece urging Barack Obama to take stock of the situation in Egypt and take a lead in sending a clear message to Egyptian political forces and the SCAF. Here's the core of what he's worried about:

No matter which path the Egyptian revolution takes, Egypt-Israel peace, in any tangible sense of the term, is almost surely a victim. While the Egyptian authorities recognize that a formal break with Israel runs against their interests, peace has already been denuded of virtually all its content. Even before Mubarak fell, peace had only four real elements left: the gas pipeline to Israel, the operation of several qualifying industrial zones, severely limited diplomatic relations, and well-defined counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation vis-a-vis Islamist extremists. And, already, much of that is gone or transformed beyond recognition. Al-Ahram reported yesterday, for example, that prior to the attack on the Israeli embassy, Egypt asked Israel to keep its ambassador to Cairo on an extended holiday in Tel Aviv, fearful that his presence would be a lightning rod for protests. (The Israelis sent him back to Cairo nonetheless.) On the current glidepath, Egypt-Israel relations are headed toward a situation of "no war, no peace." Some Egyptians may believe this is politically optimal, but in practice it is a high-wire act almost impossible to sustain. 

And here is what he suggests:

  • That the US should offer a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to Egypt as a token of the long-term commitment to bilateral relations;
  • That Barack Obama should visit Cairo to deliver a message to Egypt's interim leaders and its political forces, along the following lines:

As Egypt's elections approach, the likely results range between bad and worse. Liberal, reformist forces will not have a majority; the question is how large a plurality will be achieved by illiberal Islamist groups. In this environment, the administration has little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from engaging Egyptians in a respectful but clear discussion about the consequences -- in terms of their relationship with the United States, Western nations, and international financial institutions — should they opt for leaders whose raison d'etre is fundamentally anti-U.S. and anti-West.

The irony in Satloff's first proposal — which I have no problem with except that it will be very difficult to get it past Congress (never mind the nitty-gritty of negotiations, notably over intellectual property rights, pharmaceuticals and textiles) — is that it would end the need for the QIZ agreement whereby Egypt exports goods with Israeli content to the US. I really don't see why US-Egypt trade should be tied to Israel, so I'm all for it, although as a matter of principle I would prefer it (as a US citizen) if Washington entered into FTAs for economic rather than political reasons.

As for the second proposal, I'm not sure that the same Barack Obama who honored Hosni Mubarak by visiting him in Cairo in June 2009 (for his speech to the Muslim world) has that much credibility here. But while Satloff envisages dangling carrots and sticks over the Israel issue, if any message from Washinton should come, it is that the old trilateral relationship is over. Let the Egyptians deal with Israel as they want, and vice-versa, and focus instead on bilateral relations. That should mean that there will be consequences for the old Mubarak-style bullshit (human rights abuses, the brouhaha over foreign funding, permanent emergency law, etc.), and that while Washington wants to turn a new page (as Obama said in his May 19 speech) it can only do so with a legitimate government.

The bigger picture here is that it is time to treat both Israelis and Egyptians like adults rather than petulant children, and let them sort out their own problems: if they don't like each other, fine. It's better to sacrifice the Camp David framework, which constrained Egypt to breaking point, to salvage the peace both sides want to maintain. Satloff's idea of peace constituting of these goodwill measures is wrong: peace consists of the absence of war. Friendship can wait for more auspicious times.