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In the End, Obama Stood Up to the Push by Israel and American Neocons to Stand with Mubarak in Egypt

The “realists” and the Israelis were pushing the administration to hold back the forces of change in Egypt.

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Obama must have been well aware of that argument. Though no one can know exactly what was in his mind, it seems a safe bet that he was also taking seriously the view of the Israeli doves: democracy in Egypt, and the changes it sows throughout the Arab world, will put more pressure on Israel to move toward a two-state solution. For whatever reason, it appears the president did side with the doves against their right-wing government.

Consider the sequence of events. On February 10 Mubarak was expected to step down but refused, catching the administration by surprise. The White House quickly put out a statement saying, in diplomatic language, that it was not at all pleased. Mubarak’s speech apparently also defied his own army leaders, who were eager to see him go.

Less than 24 hours later, Mubarak completely reversed course and ceded all power to the army. It would be naïve to think that any message from Washington in the interval made all the difference. But it would be equally naïve to think that the White House simply sat on its hands and waited to see what Mubarak and the army would do.

“The strongest ties between the U.S. and Egypt run through the countries' militaries” as the Wall Street Journal pointed out. “The U.S. retains substantial leverage over the Egyptian military, mainly through $1.3 billion a year in military aid used to buy American arms. Thousands of Egyptian officers have studied and trained in the U.S.”

It was surely the army that forced Mubarak out. And the army leaders surely got some clear signal of support from Obama -- no matter how much it angered Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.

I doubt that Israel was uppermost in Obama’s mind as he made his decisions on the Egypt crisis. But his ultimate decision should put to rest any notion that Israel controls U.S. foreign policy. He showed once again that when U.S. interests are high enough, he will rebuff the Israeli government.

That should reopen discussion about U.S. policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict. No doubt leaders on all sides will give the peace process a rest for a while, waiting to see how the Egyptian political structure reshapes itself. But Obama still has a public commitment to achieving a peace agreement as a major foreign policy goal.

Perhaps it was coincidence that, just two days after Mubarak’s demise, the Times, that bellwether of centrist liberal opinion, ran a cover story in its magazine promoting “A Peace Plan That Still Could Be.” Author Bernard Avishai reported that Abbas told him the Palestinian Authority leadership wants Obama to put forth his own peace plan. “It is hard to imagine Netanyahu resisting an Obama initiative,” Avishai added, “should the president fully commit to an American package.”

Events in Egypt had already led the Times’ top foreign policy columnist, Thomas Friedman, to take the same position as Abbas and the Israeli doves: “President Obama should put his own peace plan on the table, bridging the Israeli and Palestinian positions, and demand that the two sides negotiate on it without any preconditions . It is vital for Israel’s future … that it disentangle itself from the Arabs’ story as much as possible. There is a huge storm coming, Israel. Get out of the way.”

Would Obama do it? Most of his State of the Union address sounded like a paraphrase of Friedman’s writing over the past several years. Perhaps the president is considering following the influential pundit on the Israel-Palestine issue too. Perhaps he’s counting on a continued steady erosion of the “Israel can do no wrong” lobby, which would free him up to put more pressure on Israel.

 
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