An Israeli-Arab alliance on Iran?/ Cutting off US aid to Egypt

Oct 11, 2013

An Israeli-Arab alliance on Iran?/ Cutting off US aid to Egypt

Update from AIJAC

October 11, 2013
Number 10/13 #04

Today’s update centres on the growing policy congruence, some say amounting almost to a tacit alliance, between Israel and various Sunni Arab states, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states – united by shared concerns about Iran and declining US regional influence. It also contains an analysis of the US Administration’s decision to cut off most of its military aid to Egypt earlier this week. 

First up is American Middle East analyst Dan Diker who explores the fact that while Israeli PM Netanyahu has made few fans in the West with his continuous urging of caution about Iranian intentions, he has considerable backing from traditional regional enemies of Israel. Diker argues that the Saudis, Gulf states and various regional minorities are queitly counting on Netanyahu to fulfil his pledge that “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons” and cites published statements and private statements he personally heard to prove his poiint. Diker does note that this is a temporary alliance of convenience and Israel will likely go back to being a rallying point for regional enmity once the Iranian crisis ends. For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Israeli historian and author Dr. Ronen Yitzhak, who also stresses the growing shared interests and actual covert cooperation between Israel and various Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia. More than Diker, he stresses that the impetus is not simply Iran, but a wider sense that US regional power is waning, and a dislike for the US handling of such issues as Egypt’s revolutions of recent years. He predicts that as long as the perception of declining US influence continues, this reality is likely to continue. For Yitzhak’s complete discussion, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Eric Trager, Egyptian politics expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offers a critical analysis of the consequences of the US decision to halt most military aid to Egypt in the wake of the military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in July and subsequent serious human rights abuses.  Trager argues essentially that there appears to be little policy upside for this decision – it will cost the US influence in Egypt, but not help achieve any other goals, such as encouraging democratic prospects in Egypt. He also argues that to say simply that the “the military removed a democratically elected president from office” is to ignore the realities of the situation in Egypt at the time, and that the subsequent policy of encouraging the military to reconcile with the Brotherhood was asking the impossible. For all the details of this important analysis, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Israel is clearly concerned about the US decision, though senior officials say they do not expect it to affect the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Finally, the Wall Street Journal argues the decision is simply likely to anger all Egyptian factions.

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Netanyahu’s Silent Middle East Majority

By Dan Diker

It’s not easy being Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu these days. He has faced heavy criticism in western circles for his uncompromising stance on Iran’s nuclear program. His October 1 address to the United Nations plenum, where he accused Iranian regime President Hassan Rouhani of being “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community,” was met with accusations of war-mongering. Columnist Roger Cohen accused Netanyahu of “crying wolf” while a New York Times editorial blasted Netanyahu for “Blind distrust of the Iranian regime,” seeming eager for a fight… and sabotaging diplomacy, especially before Iran is tested.”

While optimistic western elites bristle at Netanyahu’s rejection of Rouhani’s “smile and conquer diplomacy,” The Middle East’s silent Sunni majority backs Netanyahu’s “distrust, dismantle, and verify” approach towards neighboring Iranian regime’s nuclear program and race for regional supremacy.

Led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and supported by the region’s many minorities including Kurds, Christians, Druse, Sufis, Baluchees and others, several hundred million Sunnis across the Middle East are quietly banking on Netanyahu’s making good on his declaration before the UN General Assembly that, “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons,” and “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”

While official Arab Sunni and non-Arab Sunni criticism of America’s softer approach to Iran and its Syrian state proxy remains muted, as is expected in non-democratic “fear societies” as former soviet dissident Natan Sharansky has coined them, voices have begun to pierce the silence.

Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who is close to the Saudi royal family, told the New York Times recently that, ” There is a lot of suspicion and even paranoia about some secret deal between Iran and America.

My concern is that the Americans will accept Iran as it is – so that the Iranians can continue their old policies of expansionism and aggression.”

The Times also reported that Mustafa Alani, a Dubai-based security analyst, said the Saudis think US President Barack Obama is “not a reliable ally, that he’s bending to the Syrians and Iranians.” Mishaal al-Gergawi, a United Arab Emirates-based analyst, said, “There is a lot of cynicism, and it feeds into the notion that Obama is very naïve – he was naïve with the Muslim Brotherhood, naïve with Bashar al-Assad, and he is now naïve with Iran.”

Sunni concerns over Iranian regime-sponsored Shi’ite power extends beyond Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

A very senior Jordanian lawmaker told this author in 2009 during a visit to the Jordanian senate in Amman that the Iranian regime “could only be stopped by military force and that only Israel was capable of doing that.”

In fact, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who first coined the phrase “Shi’ite crescent,” that began with what he called the “Islamic republic of Iraq” referring to Iranian penetration and control of Iran’s Shi’ite-majority neighbor that the king warned would extend to Syria and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Al Sheikh, condemned Iran’s Hezbollah proxy’s role in Syria, urging politicians and Muslim scholars to take “effective steps to deter its aggression” on Syria. Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi noted that “Iran wants “continued massacres to kill Sunnis.”

While US and some Western leaders have expressed cautious optimism over Rouhani’s expressed readiness to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, Sunni regimes are mindful and respectful of Israel’s past readiness to use force to stop Tehran, and its proxies and allies.

Israel’s destruction of Syria’s nuclear program in 2007, according to foreign reports, its war against Iran-backed Hezbollah in 2006, and Hamas in 2009 and 2012, and the Jewish state’s five preemptive assaults against the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah strategic balance-breaking weapons stockpiling and transfers in 2013 alone has made Israel a center of power, deterrence and even salvation for the Sunni world.

However, while the Sunni world is taking Israel’s side for the moment, it is likely a tactical convenience. If and when the Iranian regime is replaced by a new government more amenable to the West, the Sunni establishment would likely not hesitate to turn against the Jewish state in their traditional attempt to coalesce other Sunni powers in attempting to reassert regional control.

But for now, with the US seen by its Arab allies as turning inward in handing pro-Syria and Iran-friendly Russia the keys to superpower influence in the Middle East, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel are perceived as the only hope for saving the Middle East’s Sunnis from Iran’s nuclear ascension. With Sunni powers unwilling to act, Israel and its so-called “distrustful” prime minister are not only the protectors of the Jewish state; They have also become the defenders of a primarily Sunni Middle East.

Sunni states and other peoples of the Middle East have remained unimpressed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s shift in tactics as faithfully carried out by President Rouhani. Many have also been captivated by Israel’s will to stop them. The free world would do well to heed their warnings.

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The Israeli-Gulf link

Dr. Ronen Yitzhak

Israel Hayom,

“We are losing weight and the ship is sinking,” said the headline of a cartoon published in the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat last week.

This cartoon was one of many published by the newspaper recently expressing Saudi and other Gulf states’ anger and frustration over both U.S. policy in the Middle East since the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions and the White House’s seeming readiness to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. Saudi commentators are so similar to their Israeli counterparts that it has become impossible to distinguish between the respective official positions over these issues.

The U.S.’s support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster — with Mubarak having been one of Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s closest friends in the Middle East — and its refusal to publicly support the military putsch that brought about President Mohammed Morsi’s deposal, illustrated the joint interest Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have in preventing the spread of radical Islam throughout the region.

The war against Iran’s nuclear program — a program that, according to many in the intelligence community, is meant, first and foremost, to create a Shiite hegemony in the Middle East while simultaneously decimating the statuses of Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt — also brought about a secretive, strategic, Sunni-Israeli pact, the goal of which was to thwart the Iranian nuclear program. Additionally, countering the Iranian program opened the door for greater cooperation between the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, countries where Israeli ministries with similar interests had made limited contacts until 2009, closing those channels after Operation Cast Lead was launched.

The conclusion in Saudi Arabia, Gulf states and Israel in light of the U.S.’s conduct over President Bashar Assad of Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama’s limp policy over Iranian nuclearization and the propriety of setting off on negotiations with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani without Rouhani having proved the earnestness of his intentions, is a united one. These countries believe that the U.S. has grown weaker and either does not want to or does not have the ability to play in the Middle East.

All the while, the Iranians, laughing all the way to the nuclear bomb, are on the rise. With Russian backing, Iranian support of the Assad regime has continued (the Saudi’s are against Assad and support, as we know, the Syrian opposition). The Shiite subversion creeping through Sunni nations will continue as Middle Eastern terrorism intensifies. Gulf states, disturbed by this reality, are finding themselves absolutely aligned with Israeli interests.

Even though diplomatic relations between Israel and these nations do not openly exist, on a subterranean level, a covert diplomatic-security portal has opened, designed to facilitate coordination and bolster cooperative efforts, which have markedly grown against the backdrop of joint efforts to thwart the Iranian nuclear program. This is in addition to joint security activities with Jordan and Egypt. In one previously leaked piece of news, it was revealed that former Mossad chief Meir Dagan secretly visited Saudi Arabia in 2010 to discuss with its leaders the Iranian nuclear program. The Saudis also agreed, according to foreign sources, to allow Saudi air space to be used by the air force if an attack against Iran was to be launched, expressing a cooperative attitude.

Cozier Israeli-Saudi relations developed without any sort of official diplomatic channel. Given the waning American influence in the region and an increasingly feeble sense of security, it is very likely that this trend will only grow.

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Obama Just Made a Terrible Mistake on Egypt


Eric Trager

New Republic, October 9, 2013

Cutting aid will cost Washington substantial influence in Egypt without achieving any gains for either American geostrategy or democratic prospects within the country.

In a certain sense, the Obama administration’s decision to withhold much of the $1.3 billion in annual aid given to Egypt isn’t surprising. U.S. law mandates cutting off aid to countries in which a coup has taken place, and the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi this summer was, analytically speaking, exactly that. Moreover, the Egyptian military’s behavior during the three months since Morsi’s removal has made Egypt’s slide towards enhanced autocracy impossible to ignore: Over 1,000 people have been killed in the military-backed government’s crackdown on pro-Morsi protests; journalists who criticize the military have been prosecuted in military courts; and the new constitution will likely further shield the military from any kind of civilian oversight.

Indeed, the generals are not democrats, and never have been. They are bureaucratic actors who selfishly guard their bureaucratic privileges, which include autonomy over their internal affairs and control over vast economic assets (for example, among other consumer products, the Egyptian military produces bottled water), and they know that true democracy could cost them these perquisites. But cutting off aid won’t make the military democratic, and it will come at a substantial cost: namely, the ability to encourage the military in a more progressive direction down the road, when the environment might be riper for a more assertively pro-democratic U.S. policy in Egypt.

The calls to cut off military aid in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of what transpired in Egypt this past summer. To say, as is frequently said, that the military removed a democratically elected president from office is to overlook a very basic reality: that by the time unprecedentedly mass protests against the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule commenced on June 30, Mohamed Morsi was a president in name only. Morsi’s November 2012 constitutional declaration, which put his own edicts above judicial scrutiny, and his subsequent ramming of an Islamist constitution through to ratification, severely undercut his popular legitimacy, and shrunk his support in a country of 85 million people down to the Brotherhood’s base of approximately 500,000 members. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to dispatch its cadres to brutally attack and torture protesters outside the presidential palace on December 5 led many Egyptians to view the Brotherhood — an organization that they had elected only months earlier — as an emerging fascist regime. From that point forward, protests against Morsi’s rule became so frequent and destabilizing that by late January, the military — at Morsi’s request — assumed control over the three major Suez Canal cities.

At the same time, Morsi’s appointment of perhaps thousands of completely inexperienced Muslim Brothers to executive positions across Egypt’s massive bureaucracy catalyzed substantial resistance to his rule within the state itself. This was something that Morsi’s own Brotherhood appointees acknowledged. But rather than trying to build consensus within their respective bureaucracies, Brotherhood ministers instead diverted governmental resources directly to Brotherhood-affiliated organizations, thereby exacerbating the resistance within their bureaucracies to their authority. By June 30, uniformed officers from the same police force that once backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s assault on protesters were now protesting against him, alongside millions of Egyptians in the streets. And shortly thereafter, Morsi’s ministers began resigning from his government. Morsi, in other words, had completely lost control, and his refusal to negotiate a political resolution to the crisis — and his explicit preference for martyrdom over politics — made his reassertion of control virtually impossible.

When a president of a country of 85 million, mostly impoverished, people loses control, there are no happy endings. Indeed, some truly gruesome possibilities suddenly become probable: violent uprisings, assassinations, civil wars, and, yes, military coups. And despite the Egyptian military’s undemocratic outlook, the generals very much wanted to avoid a coup. As military officials emphasized for months leading up to Morsi’s ouster, their experience running Egypt following Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster was a sour one. Their training, they said, was in fighting wars and defending borders, not in policing cities and handling sanitation. More to the point, the generals effectively got what they wanted under Morsi: The Brotherhood’s constitution granted the military unprecedented autonomy over its internal affairs, including its control over major economic assets. And Morsi affirmed his acceptance of the military’s exception to democratic oversight in April, when he buried a state report highlighting the military’s abuses in power following the 2011 uprising. It was, in other words, a good deal for the military — but one that became entirely unsustainable as Morsi lost control of the country.

Yet despite the military’s reluctance to remove Morsi, its ultimate decision to do so put it in direct confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is, quite frankly, the way coups work: Those that seize power seek to ensure that those they removed cannot return to power, because this would almost certainly mean death for the new rulers. This is why the Egyptian military moved to decapitate the Brotherhood from the moment Morsi was removed. And many — perhaps most — Egyptians share the military’s fear of a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, which is why they have broadly endorsed the military’s brutal crackdown on the organization.

It is a dynamic that Washington cannot change even if it wanted to, because it is virtually impossible to exert influence on actors who are engaged in an existential struggle. And the administration’s policy towards Egypt since Morsi’s ouster has undercut its potential influence further. By insisting that the military negotiate and even reconcile with the Brotherhood, the administration made the generals fear that they would be pressured into their own suicides, and the administration thus lost the ability to at least achieve the more conservative goal of preventing an all-out assault by security forces on the Brotherhood’s protests. Meanwhile, in its equivocal public posture regarding Morsi’s removal, the administration exacerbated Egyptians’ paranoid belief that the U.S. desires Brotherhood rule in Egypt — which Egyptians view as far, far more threatening than military rule. Cutting off military aid now — only two days after Egypt was hit with three terrorist attacks — will only reinforce these anxieties, and will mean losing a point of leverage that the U.S. might be able to use in the future, when the political environment in Egypt might be more hospitable for pushing the country in a more progressive direction.

And rest assured: That moment will surely come. If the past two-plus years have taught us anything about Egypt, it’s that newly emerging regimes quickly fall out of public favor as they become more autocratic. Much as Egyptians turned on the military leaders who assumed control of the country in February 2011, and much as they rebelled against the Muslim Brotherhood leader who won the presidential election in June 2012, they will likely bristle before long under the current regime, particularly as Egypt’s economy continues to tumble. If the U.S. desires a stable Egypt, it is at that moment that the U.S. will want to use its leverage to encourage the generals to lower their political sights, and permit a more inclusive and democratic politics.

But if the U.S. cuts aid now, it won’t be able to have that conversation then. It will also put at risk U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation that is of significant value to U.S. strategy in the Middle East, which includes U.S. overflight rights and preferred access in the Suez Canal. And by only keeping the portion of the aid that is designed for counterterrorism operations and border control, the administration will reinforce the perception in Egypt that the military aid’s primary purpose is to keep Israel safe, and that Washington does not care about Egyptians’ well-being.

Cutting aid, in other words, is a lose-lose proposition: It will cost Washington substantial influence within Egypt without achieving any gains for either American geostrategy or democratic prospects within Egypt. It is an unforced error in the extreme.

Eric Trager is the Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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