News & Politics

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.

Beneath the main story -- Egyptian people defeat Mubarak -- there were plenty of subplots that got lost in the shuffle, like the reported split inside the Obama administration, with the president for once resisting the old-school “realists.” Another closely related, but largely unreported story was the rebuff Obama gave to the leaders of Israel.

The “realists” and the Israelis were pushing him to hold back the forces of change in Egypt -- the realists for fear that Egypt would descend into “instability,” the Israelis for fear that whatever replaces the Mubarak regime would be less friendly to Israeli interests. The president seems to have softly yet clearly rejected both.

The New York Times’ top foreign policy correspondents have traced the outlines of the internal administration battle. When Frank Wisner, Obama’s envoy to Cairo, told a Munich conference that Mubarak was indispensable, the president was reportedly furious. Hillary Clinton and her State Department promoted a go-slow approach that subtly supported Wisner’s view, “Seething about coverage that made it look as if the administration were protecting a dictator and ignoring the pleas of the youths of Cairo, the president ‘made it clear that this was not the message we should be delivering,’ said one official who was present.”

Often, though, throughout the Egyptian drama the administration did seem to be backing State’s “order and stability” line, giving the impression of a confused, because internally split administration. Why? Beyond the foreign policy establishment’s reflexive instinct for so-called “stability,” one big reason was pressure from the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Once the magnitude of the Egyptian uprising became apparent, U.S. officials were “on the telephone almost daily with their Israeli counterparts,” the Times reported, “urging them to ‘please chill out,’ in the words of one senior administration official.” The insightful Israeli-American commentator Daniel Levy told the Times that “the Israelis are saying, après Mubarak, le deluge. That gets to the core of what is the American interest in this. It’s Israel. … The problem for America is, you can balance being the carrier for the Israeli agenda with Arab autocrats, but with Arab democracies, you can’t do that.”

Levy may have overstated the importance Israel carries in the Oval Office. But his analysis fits well with a common view among progressives that Israel pretty much dictates White House policy on the Middle East.

There is no doubt that Israel’s right-wing supporters in the U.S. were trying their best to do just that. From the outset of the Egyptian uprising, prominent American-Jewish leaders urged the administration to do whatever it could to keep Mubarak in power. Ehud Barak spent the better part of a week in Washington lobbying for the same approach.

“It is impossible to overstate the angst, even hysteria, that Israelis are feeling about their neighborhood as they watch what is unfolding in the streets of Cairo,”wrote Aaron David Miller, a long-time adviser to the U.S. government on Mideast affairs. “The old adage that Israelis fight the Arabs during the day and win but fight the Nazis at night and lose may be dated, but it still reflects fundamental and enduring security concerns as well as the dark side of Jewish history -- both of which make Israelis worry for a living.”

Watching the crowds grow in Egypt, many Israelis worried that a new Egyptian government would no longer honor the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, forcing the Israelis to militarize their long southwestern border with Egypt. Even more, many Israelis worried that free elections would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, turning Egypt into a rabidly anti-Israel power.

Both worries were unrealistic, rooted mostly in the dream-like fears Miller referred to, fears that Henry Siegman, former director of the American Jewish Congress,has called “pathological.” One Israeli columnist chalked it up to “the white Westerner’s primeval fear of the Arab mob,” which is also widespread among Israeli Jews, even those who are brown-skinned people of Middle Eastern descent.

Not all Israelis supported their government’s pro-Mubarak stance. While most of the U.S. mass media presented Israeli opinion as monolithic, the L. A. Times’ man in Jerusalem, Edmund Sanders, offered a moreobjective assessment: “Israelis Divided on How to Respond to Egypt Turmoil.” “This whole situation is making Israel's hawks more hawkish and the doves more dovish," one Israeli observer told Sanders.

The prestigious, dovish Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz editorially supported the Egyptian democracy movement and downplayed Israeli fears. There was virtually no evidence of anti-Israel sentiment among the protesters, the paper reported. All Egyptian factions including the Muslim Brotherhood were still committed to peace with Israel, and “Israel was simply not a factor in the whole Egyptian saga.”

Ha’aretz speculated that the real fear among pro-Mubarak Israelis was the Egyptian democracy movement spreading to Palestine: “How will the Israel Defense Forces respond when thousands [of Palestinians] march with bare hands toward the fences of the settlements, and demand a free country of their own?”

A prominent Israeli analysttold his readers that Obama believes “a democratic Middle East that will provide fair parliamentary expression to Islamist parties (with the exception of those that support terrorism) will safeguard the peace treaty with Israel and sign new agreements with it.” Some Israeli found that a convincing argument. Efraim Halevy, former chief Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, affirmed that Israel “has no reason to fear.”

Some argued that a less predictable Egypt would make it more compelling for Israeli to move quickly toward peace with the Palestinians. They agreed with Levy, who wrote in his own analysis that Israel would be better off with Mubarak gone. The Egyptian tyrant’s support was vital to a U.S.-led peace process that “sustained Israel's occupation and settlement expansion, that sustained an image of Egypt's usefulness as the indispensable peace-builder, and that allowed the U.S. to avoid making hard choices.”

With the masses in Egypt demanding Mubarak’s ouster, the U.S. -- and especially the president of the U.S. -- had to make a hard choice.

Growing number of Americans, including American Jews, sympathize with thedovish arguments coming from Israel. Yet the right-wing “Israel can do no wrong” lobby, which supported Netanyahu’s call to rally around Mubarak, is still a formidable political force both in Congress and in the Democratic Party. A president defies it at his peril, as Obama found out in his first months in office. He demanded an end to all West Bank settlement expansion, then felt compelled to back down when the Israelis refused to comply. Since then he has put the squeeze on Israelwith some success. But he’s done it with the softest of kid gloves.

Watching the seemingly fearless crowds grow in Tahrir Square, Obama aides like Denis McDonough and Benjamin Rhodes told the president (according to the Times) that he could no longer afford to accept the “stability” argument, no matter how loudly the right-wing pro-Israel lobby echoed it.

People like McDonough and Rhodes are hardly starry-eyed idealists promoting democracy for its own sake. They are “realist” watchdogs of U.S. interests too. They argued that U.S. interest lay more with the protesters than with Mubarak. “Failure to side with the protesters could be remembered with bitterness by a rising generation,” as the Times summed up their view. An anti-U.S. backlash in Egypt would gain votes for the Muslim Brotherhood. Public opinion could turn fatally against the U.S., not just in Egypt but throughout the Arab and even the whole Muslim world.

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 administrationby surprise. The White House quickly put outa statement saying, in diplomatic language, that it was not at all pleased. Mubarak’s speech apparentlyalso 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, totake 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 continuedsteady erosion of the “Israel can do no wrong” lobby, which would free him up to put more pressure on Israel.

Certainly, with the 2012 election season already underway, Obama and his advisers are carefully tracking the political winds. Whether they are willing to take the political risk of following Friedman’s advice depends largely on whether it seems politically safe. That, in turn, depends on public opinion. The changes in Egypt will spur right-wingers to ratchet up their campaign to resist U.S. pressures on Israel. The question is whether progressives, who have largely given up on an Obama-led peace process, will now return to the fray.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog: