U.S. officials have announced that a chunk of the $1.3 billion in annual aid delivered to the Egyptian military will be suspended–and Israel is none too pleased.
The move, in response to the military’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, comes after months of deliberations between Obama administration officials over what the U.S. reaction should be. It’s a confusing policy change, given that the most intense violence occurred in August, though last weekend violence broke out in Cairo.
“As a result of the review directed by President Obama, we have decided to maintain our relationship with the Egyptian government, while recalibrating our assistance to Egypt to best advance our interests,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. The U.S. would “hold the delivery of certain large-scale military systems and cash assistance.”
The cut off applies to $260 million in cash already appropriated, in addition to the delaying of items such as Apache helicopters and F-16 warplanes, which the military already possesses from previous buys. Aid will continue to flow to U.S. defense contractors, whose equipment will sit in storage instead of being shipped to Egypt.
Israeli officials have already cried foul. One anonymous Israeli official told the New York Times’ Isabel Kershner that the United States was “playing with fire” with the aid cut. “You cannot disassemble the peace treaty [between Egypt and Israel] and take out this part or that part,” the official said. Haaretz reports that Israel lobbied “intensely” to stave off the aid cut.
But perhaps they shouldn’t worry, at least not at this moment: the steps to suspend military aid are more a symbolic slap on the wrist than a significant turn of events. An Obama administration official told the New York Times that “this is not meant to be permanent; this is meant to be the opposite.” The administration strongly hinted that the aid could be restored if what they called a “inclusive, democratically elected civilian government” is established through “free and fair elections”–though with the Muslim Brotherhood decimated, it’s unlikely elections would be fair or free.
The Israeli worry about the move is centered on the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The $1.3 billion in American aid has ensured the maintenance of that treaty for decades. But the Egyptian military has no interest in breaking off the treaty. And their interests perfectly align with Israel’s. Egypt is intent on squeezing Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group close to the Brotherhood. The Egyptian military is also waging a crackdown on extremists in the Sinai who could threaten Israel. The U.S. government says that aid meant for security in the Sinai and counter-terrorism cooperation will continue to be sent to the Egyptian government.
What may worry the Israeli establishment the most, though, is the precedent this sets. The U.S. has long been reluctant to use the power of the purse to punish human rights violators, but this symbolic aid cut-off is in direct response to a brutal crackdown. As former CIA official Paul Pillar wrote in August, “the Israeli Right has to be discomfited by any thought of the United States using leverage based on a major aid relationship in that part of the world to get the recipient to change destructive policies.”
Still, aid-cuts to Israel are off the table. And with a path set for restoring the aid to Egypt, both the military and the Israeli government have little reason to worry about a major shift in U.S. posture in the region–at least for now.