WASHINGTON − Israel last week urged senior U.S. officials not to respond to Egypt’s coup by halting the $1.3 billion in aid America gives the Egyptian army every year.
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The Israeli request was transmitted via several different channels, a senior American official said.
Marathon phone calls about the coup took place between Jerusalem and Washington over the weekend. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon spoke with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror spoke with his White House counterpart, Susan Rice.
The senior American official said the talks were aimed at coordinating U.S. and Israeli positions on the Egyptian crisis. During those calls, and in follow-up conversations afterward, the Israelis warned that cutting military aid to Egypt would likely impact negatively on Israel’s security, especially given the possibility of further security deterioration in Sinai.
They also warned that halting the aid could undermine Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. Though the American aid isn’t officially part of the Camp David Accords, it began as a direct result of the treaty. Moreover, the United States is a signatory to the treaty’s security annex, alongside Israel and Egypt.
Ever since the treaty was signed in 1979, U.S. aid to Egypt has continued uninterrupted. It wasn’t affected by the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 or by President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 and the Muslim Brotherhood’s subsequent rise to power. The Americans’ one and only condition for continuing the aid has always been that Cairo uphold the peace treaty.
Israel therefore fears that any change in this U.S. policy could undermine the Egyptian army’s commitment to the treaty. Senior Israeli officials in Jerusalem said that this week, Israeli diplomats in Washington will try to make this case to senior senators and congressmen.
The senior American official said that Israeli officials voiced satisfaction at the coup and the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government. Nevertheless, he added, Jerusalem and Washington agreed that the Egyptian army should transfer the reins of power to a civilian government as soon as possible and ensure that free elections are held.
Amidror even told Rice and her counterparts in other Western countries that he hopes whatever new government arises will form as broad a coalition as possible, and not freeze out the opposition as the Brotherhood did.
An intense public debate is taking place in Washington right now on the question of whether to halt aid to Egypt. On one hand, U.S. law explicitly bans government funding to any government that took power in a military coup. On the other hand, the White House, the State Department and the American defense establishment all believe that continuing the aid is a U.S. security interest.
Consequently, much of the debate has revolved around whether what happened in Egypt can really be defined as a coup. The camp that favors an aid cutoff includes a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen whose most prominent spokesman is Republican Senator John McCain. On Sunday, McCain said publicly that a military coup had taken place, and therefore, the aid must be halted.
But White House Spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday that the administration hasn’t yet determined whether this was a military coup or not.
“It’s our view that it would not be wise to abruptly change our assistance program” to Egypt, Carney said, noting that Washington seeks to help the Egyptian people transition to democracy while also staying faithful to America’s national security needs.
“To be blunt, there are significant consequences that go along with this determination, and it is a highly charged issue for millions of Egyptians who have different views about what happened,” he added, pointing out that the millions of Egyptians who opposed the ousted government don’t consider what happened to be a coup.
Carney stressed that the administration would take as much time as it deemed necessary to decide how to term last week’s events, and is holding talks with Congress about the law. But he said continuation of the aid would likely depend on how quickly Egypt transitioned to a civilian, democratic government.