Obama: Hard on Israel, soft on Egypt

Pity the reverse isn't true.

obama egypt visit 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama egypt visit 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Quick, name the two largest recipients of American foreign aid. If you guessed Israel and Egypt, you'd be correct. Since 1997, the US has provided between $2 billion and $3 billion dollars annually to Israel and between $1b. and $2b. to Egypt, accounting for about a third of its total foreign aid budget. But while the US enjoys a friendly relationship with both countries, a yawning gap has opened recently between the treatment President Barack Obama's administration has bestowed on Jerusalem and its advances to Cairo. Much has already been written about Obama's general tendency to express forceful disagreement with American allies while reserving judgment about (some would say coddling) bona fide enemies, like the tyrannical Iranian regime or Hugo Chavez's virtual dictatorship in Venezuela. But nowhere is the contrast clearer between the State Department's pressure on democratic governments and its timidity around despotic ones than in its respective approaches to Israel and Egypt. Jerusalem Post readers need little reminder of the slights, both petty and large, that the American administration has inflicted on the Jewish state in the five months it has been in power. From preventing media coverage of President Shimon Peres's White House visit, to grudgingly sending Vice President Joseph Biden to deliver a lukewarm address at the AIPAC conference, to demanding Israel's recognition of a Palestinian state (with nothing in return), to insisting on a complete, immediate freeze to settlement growth, the contrast with president George W. Bush's staunchly pro-Israel positions is self evident. IN FACT, on the settlements, even earnest peace processors like Aaron David Miller have criticized Obama for overemphasizing them, calling them a "distraction." At a recent forum in a Washington-area synagogue, Miller, who participated in the 2000 Camp David negotiations, argued that "given the stakes and reality, we are going to need a relationship with Israel of great intimacy in order to do this. We need to think very carefully about how we're going about it." And James Kirchick, an assistant editor of the (liberal) New Republic, observed that during Obama's much-ballyhooed Cairo speech to "the Muslim world," the president "only criticized one state by name, earning him more applause than any other part of his remarks. What was it? A critique of Israel's settlements policy." So it's hardly surprising, given Washington's current obsession with preventing the addition of guest-rooms in Ma'aleh Adumim, that only 6 percent of Jewish Israelis consider Obama "pro-Israel." But what's surely more surprising is Obama's outright abandonment of human rights and democracy concerns when it comes to Israel's neighbor to the south. EGYPT HAS CONSISTENTLY earned dismal rankings from Freedom House, the independent NGO that annually evaluates every county's level of freedom. Calling Egypt "not free" and awarding it political rights and civil liberties scores of six and five out of 10, respectively, Freedom House derided President Hosni Mubarak's "suppression of journalists' freedom of expression, repression of opposition groups and the passage of constitutional amendments that hinder the judiciary's ability to balance against executive excess." (By contrast, Israel earned a "free" ranking and political rights and civil liberties scores of one and two, respectively.) Bush, like his predecessors, considered making foreign aid to Egypt contingent on liberal reforms to Mubarak's largely illiberal regime - a step urged by Egyptian democracy activists. While the US never formally withheld aid on these grounds, the threat alone likely prevented further human rights abuses and gave succor to brave Egyptians standing up for reforms. But within months of assuming her position, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an Egyptian television anchor that "conditionality is not our policy." The US ambassador to Egypt also announced an end to funding of civil-society groups in Egypt in an effort to curry favor with Mubarak. During a May press conference with Egyptian democracy activists in Washington (presumably, meeting with them in Cairo would have proven too "controversial"), Clinton paid brief lip service to the importance of democracy and human rights, then swiftly moved to discussing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Egyptian economic development. This was followed shortly thereafter by Obama's Cairo speech, in which he did, to his credit, mention the universal desire for freedom, but then, it typical Obaman fashion, applied an important caveat: "Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone." While this bromide sounds innocent enough, it sends a clear signal to Mubarak, and all authoritarian rulers, that the US will not press them, even gently, to liberalize further. And as Joshua Muravchik observes in the July/August issue of Commentary, these words were delivered in an auditorium at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, which admits into its precincts no non-Muslims, including the nearly 20% of the Egyptian population that is Christian. So much for promoting religious tolerance. Thus, despite Israel's and Egypt's geographical proximity and comparable consumption of US foreign aid, the Obama administration has strongly pressured the former while indulging the latter. Pity the reverse isn't true. The writer is an attorney in San Diego, California. michaelmrosen@yahoo.com