US looks to reassure Israel as protests roil Middle East

US Defense Secretary Gates calls on Arab countries to enact reforms in order to avoid Egypt's fate.

Egypt Friday Tahrir 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Egypt Friday Tahrir 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – As domestic turmoil sweeps moderate Arab countries and emboldens Islamic groups across the Middle East, 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.
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Protests in Jordan and Kuwait are echoing the massive rallies in Egypt, where demonstrators continue to demand the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Tunisia, which forced out the 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 of momentum swinging toward their agendas and a weakening of the pro-West alliance in the Middle East. They also raise the specter of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood playing a role in whatever new governing structure emerges.
Israel, Saudi Arabia and other American regional allies have expressed concern that the US was abandoning its ties with friendly leaders as the situation on the ground heated up.
Asked whether the recent events were causing the US to re-evaluate how it deals with undemocratic governments supportive of America, 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 Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday indicated that the US was concerned about the situation of those 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," he 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 their urgent calls for Mubarak to release his grip on power as it has become apparent that the Egyptian president 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 underway.
In a phone conversation with newly installed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, a military leader 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, which Mubarak has used to stay in power for 30 years and to 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 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 Associated Press contributed to this report.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt