Israel and Egypt Are Rivals, but They Are the Strongest Members of Bush's Regional Coalition

Egypt complains incessantly about its inferiority to Israel in the nuclear field. Israel lobbies against Egypt's military build up. When Benjamin Ben-Eliezer goes to the U.S. he will ask the Americans to ensure Israel's qualitative edge.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – just hours after the State of the Union address by U.S. President George W. Bush and a day before Ben-Eliezer's departure for the United States – provide an effective illustration of the complicated relations in the Washington-Jerusalem-Cairo triangle.

At a time when Ben-Eliezer is basking in the perception that he is a statesman worthy of being taken into consideration in the Egyptian capital and Washington, the defense minister is to hold a series of meetings with senior U.S. officials including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Collin Powell, in which he is to raise the issues of U.S. arms sales to Egypt and further plans in the 'war against terror.'

Israel and Egypt are the strongest members of the regional coalition led by the world's only superpower. Both countries have been impressed by Bush's determination to work against terror, which surpasses his father's efforts against Iraq, which was aided by active Egyptian and passive Israeli support.

In his State of the Union address on Wednesday, Bush basically dedicated his first term to combating the common enemies of the three nations and to carry this struggle into his second term from 2005 onwards.

Following the success of the war in Afghanistan, and given the resurrection of World War Two terms – the Iran-Iraq-North Korea 'axis' replacing Germany-Italy-Japan – it is natural that leaders in the region will deduce that the Americans are serious this time and that Bush judges them according to their contribution or hindrance to the anti-terror cause. This is a negative message for Bashar Assad of Syria and for Yasser Arafat, but a positive one for Mubarak and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Since the inception of diplomatic contacts between Egypt and Israel, Cairo has tended to view defense ministers in Likud governments, and former military men, as moderate political forces and worthy of cultivation – Ezer Weizman under Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Mordechai under Benjamin Netanyahu, and now Ben-Eliezer under Sharon (but not Sharon under Begin).

The Israeli and American concerns about radical Islamic organizations translate into existential fears for Mubarak. The Islamic Brotherhood threatens his regime and his life. He hasn’t for a minute forgotten the circumstances in which he inherited his position from Anwar Sadat. When Mubarak asks Ben-Eliezer to lift the ring of pressure around Arafat, he is not worried about the Palestinian leader, but about himself.

Egypt does not miss an opportunity to complain about its inferiority to Israel in the nuclear field. Israel, in turn, continuously lobbies against Egypt's military build up. When Ben-Eliezer goes to Washington he will ask the Americans to ensure Israel's qualitative edge – by selling the Arab armies in general, and Egypt in particular, less sophisticated weaponry.

Sell them the Harpoon sea-to sea missile, fine, but not the ones with the ability to hit targets on the shore. Sell them multi-rocket launch systems (MLRS), as long as they are not the kind with improved accuracy. Apache helicopters? Sure, as long as these are not the new Longbow model.

Israeli air supremacy is considered assured, so long as the Americans do not sell the F-15 warplane to the Egyptians. The IAF is, however, worried about the number of F-16s in the Egyptian force and the battle skills the Egyptian pilots have learned from the Americans, who, in turn, learned some of their skills from the Israelis.