Israeli officials say US decision to cut Cairo aid may hurt Egypt peace treaty

Former Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, was uncharacteristically blunt in his criticism of US decision, saying the US was “essentially & unwittingly” working against its own interests.




As tensions between the US and Egypt simmered over this week’s American decision to withhold aid to Cairo, Israeli officials said on Thursday that for Jerusalem, preserving Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt is paramount.

Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin at the U.S. Capitol on 09-18-1978 – Photo courtesy Jimmy Carter Library

Concerned by the outlook for human rights and democracy in Egypt, the US announced on Wednesday it would withhold deliveries of tanks, fighter aircraft, helicopters and missiles as well as hundreds of millions in cash aid.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Office had no comment Thursday on the US decision, but an Israeli official said that the most important thing from an Israeli perspective was maintaining the peace treaty with Egypt that the US brokered and to which president Jimmy Carter was a witness.

“The American support for Egypt was given in that context,” he said.

Obviously, the official added, Israel understood that the US had its laws governing aid, “but we would hope there would be a way to restore normal relations between Egypt and America as quickly as possible.”

Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan voiced concern over the effects the decision might have on bilateral ties.

“Certainly it can be confirmed that we had been troubled by how decisions of this kind were liable to be interpreted in Egypt, and of course the risk of consequences for relations with Israel,” Erdan said.

Former defense minister Labor MK Binyamin Ben- Eliezer, however, was uncharacteristically blunt in his criticism of the US, saying that the US was “essentially and unwittingly” working against its own interests.

“It must be understood that this region is so weak and in order to keep it stable, a superpower of some kind is required to safeguard it,” said Ben-Eliezer, who was considered close to deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Ben-Eliezer said that the US policy was of great concern to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, and that he could envision a situation where they would begin quiet talks with the Russians to secure their interests.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and one of his senior strategists, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, were in the United States when the decision to freeze some Egyptian aid was announced. Like other officials, Gilad hinted at Israel’s disappointment.

“I try not to criticize our friends publicly,” he told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington was hosting a reception to celebrate its national Army Day on Tuesday evening, serving US government officials as their guests, when it received news of a shockingly timed, unintentional leak from the White House.

CNN reported that after another bloody weekend in Cairo resulted in the deaths of 57 civilians, the US president had decided to cut all military aid to the most populous Arab nation.

The report was quickly denied by the White House, but was not far off: the US announced on Wednesday a significant suspension of aid and a complete halt to cash assistance to Egypt’s interim government.

The US will maintain military aid to Egypt tied by contracts with American defense firms, but will “continue to hold the delivery of certain large-scale military systems and cash assistance to the government pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections,” Jen Psaki, State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The State Department clarified, however, that it would continue to give Egypt support for counterterrorism efforts in the Sinai Peninsula.

At a State Department briefing, deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “We would never undertake any policy with Egypt that would put Israel’s security at risk.”

She added, “We will continue the conversation with our Israeli friends about how to implement this going forward.”

The decision to curtail aid does not mean Washington is severing ties with the country, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday.

“The interim government understands very well our commitment to the success of this government, which we want to see achieve, and by no means is this a withdrawal from our relationship or a severing of our serious commitment to helping the government,” Kerry told reporters shortly after arriving in Malaysia.

“Large-scale systems” being withheld include F-16 fighter jets, M-181 tanks, Harpoon missiles and Apache helicopters, according to American administration officials.

“We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance,” one senior administration official said, in addition to the complete halt of $260 million in cash assistance to the interim government.

“Most of the economic assistance” earmarked for civilian purposes and toward the private sector will continue, another aide said.

“This decision just underscores that the United States will not support actions that undermine our principles,” the official said.

“This is a way of expressing that.”

Defense Chuck Hagel and  Egyptian Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explained the change in policy in a 40- minute phone call with Egyptian Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“Both wanted to take the steps needed to resume the assistance,” the official said, adding that the two men emphasized the need to reinforce security in Sinai and Egypt’s border with Israel.

The official declined to comment on whether Sisi objected to the cuts.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty criticized the decision, saying that “Egypt will not surrender to American pressure” and assuring that it is “continuing its path towards democracy as set by the road map.”

An Egyptian military source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the US decision came as no surprise and was expected, according to a report in Ahram Online. It was likely that Hagel mentioned the issue in his calls with Sisi, added the source.

The US is viewed negatively by most Egyptians, so a cutoff in aid may serve to further unite Egyptians behind the army.

According to a Tweet by the popular Egyptian blogger The Big Pharaoh, Sisi will be able to position himself as a victim of US pressure.

He questioned why similar measures were not taken during Morsi’s rule, as he had used autocratic methods to increase his power.

Meanwhile, supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi called for more protests on Friday with a planned march to Tahrir Square. Clashes throughout Egypt have led to significant bloodletting since the July 3 overthrow.

The detainment of Morsi by the military has been condemned by the US as a “politicized arrest.”

The State Department says the US has “determined not to make a determination” whether the event was a coup. US law would require aid be cut if such a determination were made.

US Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed support for the cut to Egypt’s military aid.

“Assistance to Egypt that supports these common goals should continue,” said Menendez. “But ongoing violence in Egypt is troubling, shows no signs of abating, and given these worrisome developments, a pause in assistance is appropriate until the Egyptian government demonstrates a willingness and capability to follow the road map toward a sustainable, inclusive and nonviolent transition to democracy.”

Reuters contributed to this report.


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