Wall Street Journal
August 20, 2013
Israel, Saudis and U.A.E. Support Military Moves
The U.S.’s closest Middle East allies are undercutting American policy in Egypt, encouraging the military to confront the Muslim Brotherhood rather than reconcile, U.S. and Arab officials said.
The parallel efforts by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have blunted U.S. influence with Egypt’s military leadership and underscored how the chaos there has pulled Israel into ever-closer alignment with those Gulf states, officials said.
A senior Israeli official called the anti-Muslim Brotherhood nations “the axis of reason.”
The Obama administration first had sought to persuade Egyptian military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi not to overthrow the elected government of President Mohammed Morsi and then to reconcile with his Muslim Brotherhood base.
Gen. Sisi has done the opposite—orchestrating the president’s overthrow and a crackdown in which over 900 people have been killed since Wednesday—reflecting his apparent confidence in the Egyptian government’s ability to weather an American backlash, U.S. and Arab officials said.
Early Tuesday, state television reported the arrest of Mohammed Badie, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, after security forces detained him in an apartment in the Nasr City district of Cairo.
American officials have voiced frustration with the stance of their regional allies but also played down the broader impact on relations with them. The U.S. relies heavily on Israel and the Gulf states in other critical areas including countering Iran and al Qaeda, containing the civil war in Syria and backing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the U.S.’s main interlocutor with Gen. Sisi.
U.S. sway in Egypt has long been underpinned by military aid, some of which has been dialed back since Mr. Morsi’s ouster and the violence. The U.S. froze the transfer of F-16 fighters and canceled a military exercise.
But U.S. aid amounts, even before these moves, have been dwarfed by new pledges from Arab powers.
Mr. Hagel sought to play down the influence of others. “All nations are limited in their influence in another nation’s internal issues,” he said.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the U.A.E. recognize Israel or have formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. What unites the three countries is a series of common interests, in particular countering Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Diplomats say the Saudis and the U.A.E. want to deal a blow to the Muslim Brotherhood and undercut the influence of the regional rivals that back them: Turkey and Qatar.
Israel wants an Egyptian government that will aggressively fight Islamists and protect the border. Its leaders see Mr. Morsi’s ouster as “an opportune time to give a real blow to political Islam throughout the region and get the more sensible people back in power,” said Gershon Baskin, head of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a Jerusalem based think tank that advocates for a two-state solution.
Israel isn’t coordinating directly with the Gulf states, whereas Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. are coordinating closely, Middle Eastern officials said.
U.S. officials said they underestimated the extent to which the Saudis and the Emirates would double-down in support of the Egyptian military.
Before the military intervened on July 3, Mr. Hagel and other officials tried to persuade Gen. Sisi to give Mr. Morsi more time to engage his opponents. U.S. officials said that message was undermined by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., which encouraged the generals not to back down.
Secretary of State John Kerry tried to put the Saudis and Emirates “on the same page” as the U.S. both before and after Mr. Morsi’s ouster, a senior administration official said. “But clearly they have their own decisions to make about their own policies,” the official said.
The message from the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia to the Egyptian generals was, ” ‘Go get ’em,’ and they backed it up with billions of dollars,” another senior administration official said.
U.S. officials say the Israeli position isn’t as firm, reflecting fears the Egyptian military crackdown could spark an Islamist insurgency that could erode Israeli security. Nonetheless, Israel is pushing Washington not to cut off military support to Egypt, arguing that would jeopardize counterterrorism cooperation and the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accords.
“Only after stability is restored, only after law and order is enforced, only then can you start to talk about launching a process that leads to more democratic processes,” said the senior Israeli official.
When the Egyptian army overthrew Mr. Morsi, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the U.A.E. put together what Gulf analysts called a $12 billion “Marshall Program” aid package. The Saudis transferred the first $2 billion of their $5 billion pledge to Egypt’s central bank within days.
That eclipsed the U.S.’s $1.5 billion a year in aid, which comes with strings attached. In light of the overthrow and the subsequent violence, the White House has suspended a shipment of F-16 fighter planes and a military exercise with Egypt.
A decision is expected to freeze a shipment of Apache helicopters to Egypt as soon as this week, according to U.S. officials. Other war materiel, most importantly spare parts, continues to flow from the U.S. to the Egyptian military.
A senior Egyptian official said U.S. economic assistance to Cairo, around $400 million in 2013, looks paltry in comparison the Arab states’ largess, though he recognized the importance of the larger military aid. The official cited “the frustration we’ve had with aid being used by the U.S. and others as a means to put pressure on Egypt.”
Saudi King Abdullah has stepped up the Kingdom’s support for what he called Egypt’s fight against “terrorism and extremism.” President Barack Obama has criticized the crackdown, a message repeated by Mr. Hagel on Monday.
The Obama administration believes the Brotherhood can’t be eliminated by force and has warned Gen. Sisi that the crackdown would drive hard-line Islamists underground and possibly ignite a civil war.
Senior Arab officials said Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states haven’t been subtle in raising their concerns to the U.S. about what they see as the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. For much the same reasons, these Mideast powers also opposed Mr. Obama’s decision in February 2011 to back the ouster of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak.
This year, a string of Arab leaders, including King Abdullah II of Jordan, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and the U.A.E’s crown prince met with Mr. Obama to press the U.S. to be more wary of the Brotherhood’s activities, according to U.S. and Arab officials briefed on the meetings. Arab officials said they told the White House that they were worried that the U.S. is pulling back from their region, and that they can’t wait for Washington to be more aggressive in trying to dictate events.
“I don’t think that Washington is really in the conversation” on Egypt in a significant way, said a senior Arab official. “We’re not going to wait for the U.S. and the Europeans to decide to get more involved.”
–Jay Solomon in Washington contributed to this article.