Defense Minister Ehud Barak landed on Wednesday in the US for two days of talks in New York and Washington that are expected to focus on the rapidly changing situation in Egypt, while sources in Jerusalem began expressing relief that its southern neighbor appeared to be stepping back from the verge of anarchy.
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“Anarchy in Egypt is not good for Egypt, or for us,” one official said, adding that it now appeared the situation had stabilized a bit and there would be an orderly transition to reform and elections.
Barak is expected to meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York, and with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Washington.
Israeli government sources denied that Barak was going to Washington to offer the US advice on Egypt, saying Israel was not in any position to do so.
“We have our insights that we share with friends, but we don’t give advice,” he said.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, at times bucking the international tide, has over the past few days called for caution in dealing with the Egyptian situation, warning that the upheaval could lead not to democracy, but rather to Iranian- style tyranny.
Since the crisis began, there has been constant consultation between Jerusalem and Washington, government sources said.
One source said that zigzagging US policy on Egypt – from seeming to abandon Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to now recognizing that a quick exit would lead to further chaos – has led to questions about whether Washington has a clear Middle East policy.
“This creates a feeling of insecurity – that the Americans are not sure what to do,” the source said.
He said that while in the past the US radiated a sense of purpose when acting in the Middle East – even if one disagreed with their actions – the events of the past two weeks left a feeling that the administration was not sure how to act.
And if the Americans don’t know what to do, he said, then “who is in charge?” Meanwhile, with domestic turmoil sweeping moderate Arab countries and Islamic groups across the Middle East newly emboldened, the US assured Israel Tuesday that it was attentive to its security concerns.
“Regardless of the situation facing any government in the region, our friendship, our partnership and our alliance with Israel is unchanged,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Protests in Jordan and Kuwait are echoing the massive rallies in Egypt, where demonstrators continue to demand Mubarak’s resignation, and in Tunisia, which forced out dictator Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali.
The Iranian regime and Hizbullah have been among the Islamic entities to seize on the protests as a sign that the momentum is swinging in their direction and the pro- West alliance in the Middle East is being weakened. They have also been raising the specter of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood playing a role in whatever new governing structure emerges in Egypt.
Israel, Saudi Arabia and other regional American allies have expressed concern that the US was abandoning its ties with friendly leaders as the situation on the ground heated up.
Asked whether recent events were causing the US to reevaluate its stance toward supportive, but undemocratic, governments, Gibbs indicated that there was no strategic revision in US policy.
“We have important bilateral relationships throughout the world,” he said. “We cannot institute or force change on any of those governments.
We can speak out directly, privately and in public on the universal values we support.”
Yet Gates on Tuesday indicated that the US was concerned about the situation of these bilateral partnerships, and urged Arab governments to implement reforms lest they face further uprisings.
“What we have seen take place in Tunisia and Egypt is a spontaneous manifestation of discontent on the part of people who have both economic and political grievances,” Gates said.
“My hope would be that other governments in the region – seeing this spontaneous action in both Tunisia and in Egypt – will take measures to begin moving in a positive direction toward addressing the political and economic grievances of their people.”
Though the United States has toned down its urgent calls for Mubarak to release his grip on power as it becomes apparent that he does not intend to bow out quickly, US officials are calling for concrete steps to be taken in Cairo to make clear a change in governance is under way.
In a phone conversation with newly installed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, a security head and Mubarak confidant, US Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday laid out the reforms the US is looking for, according to information put out by the State Department.
These include “immediately ending the arrests, harassment, beating and detention of journalists and political and civil society activists,” and allowing for freedom of speech and assembly; immediately rescinding the emergency law Mubarak has used to stay in power for 30 years and suppress democratic rights; broadening talks with opposition groups to include more parties; and inviting the opposition to jointly develop “a roadmap and timetable for transition.”
Writing in The New York Times, Middle East expert and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief David Makovsky pointed to the competing concerns the US is trying to balance as it calibrates its policy toward Egypt.
“President Obama is walking a tightrope: On the one hand, he aims to support American democratic values in non-democratic states,” Makovsky wrote. “On the other hand, he and his advisers must realize that democratic revolutions in the Middle East have all too often been subverted by groups that use liberal means to reach illiberal ends.”
The US-based Human Rights Watch said that two weeks of clashes had claimed at least 297 lives, by far the highest and most detailed death toll released so far. It was based on visits to seven hospitals in three cities, and the group said it was likely to rise.
While there was no exact breakdown of how many of the dead were police
or protesters, “clearly, a significant number of these deaths are a
result of the use of excessive and unlawful use of force by the police,”
said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
Egypt’s Health Ministry has not released a comprehensive death toll,
though a ministry official said he was trying to compile one.
Protesters have clashed with police who fired live rounds, tear gas and
rubber bullets. They also fought pitched street battles for two days
with gangs of pro-Mubarak supporters who attacked their main
demonstration site in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square.
The violence spread to other parts of Egypt, and the toll includes at least 65 deaths outside the capital.
Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said that she and other
researchers visited five hospitals in Cairo, a field hospital in Tahrir
Square, and one hospital each in Alexandria and Suez.
The count is based on interviews with hospital doctors, visits to emergency rooms and morgue inspections, she said.
Morayef said a majority of victims had been killed by live fire, but
that some of the deaths had been caused by tear gas canisters and rubber
bullets fired at close range.
“We personally witnessed riot police firing tear gas canisters and
rubber bullets at the heads of protesters at close range, and that is a
potentially lethal use of such riot-control agents,” said Bouckaert.
In most cases, doctors declined to release names of the dead, Morayef said.
The group counted 232 deaths in Cairo, including 217 who had been killed
through January 30 and an additional 15 killed in clashes between
government supporters and opponents in Tahrir Square last Wednesday and
In addition, 52 dead were reported in Alexandria and 13 in Suez, Morayef said.The Associated Press contributed to this report.