12:01am

Thu February 10, 2011
Anti-Government Protests Roil Egypt

U.S., Israel Focus Talks On Egypt

Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, at the Pentagon earlier this week. It was the first senior-level meeting between the two sides since the crisis in Egypt erupted two-and-a-half weeks ago, and their talks were focused on the situation there.

The widespread protests — and their threat to the stability of Egypt — have caused enormous concern in Israel. But so, too, has the White House's handling of the crisis.

One of the central pillars of Israel's national security doctrine is its peace treaty with Egypt. Signed in 1979, the agreement has come to represent a slice of stability for Israel in an otherwise turbulent region. To watch that stability erode under the weight of massive protests is difficult for Israel, says Robert Danin, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. But he says Israel knows silence is a wise choice right now.

"There have been a few comments out of Israel, but for the most part they're keeping quiet. And that's wise," he says.

Danin says the demonstrations in Egypt are focused entirely on domestic issues; there's no focus on the West, on the United States, and, most notably, there's no focus on Israel.

"Israel should not interject itself into the discussion taking place in Egypt right now and it knows it," he says.

Danin says the Obama administration has most likely asked Israel to just lay low for now. But Israel is having serious conversations about the Egypt situation with the administration, says Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller.

"I think the administration ... is doing a lot of hand-holding and minding ... of the Israelis. But then again, why would the Israelis bet on our assurances?" he says.

Miller says the U.S. doesn't have the kind of information, let alone the kind of influence on the streets right now — or with the Mubarak regime — that it had previously enjoyed.

Israeli officials have made it clear they do not want to see President Hosni Mubarak's regime swept from power. And recent U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show Israel has long supported Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman as the person to perpetuate the regime after Mubarak.

Danin, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Israelis are privately expressing their discomfort with how the White House has handled the crisis, going hard on the Egyptian regime one day, softer the next.

"I think there are concerns in Jerusalem right now about how the U.S. is moving forward and a lack of clarity about the way in which the U.S. is handling this ... because the U.S. is modulating its approach as developments in Egypt evolve," he says.

Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa in Israel, says the shifting stand by the White House makes President Obama look weak and indecisive. He hints that the U.S. was too quick to signal that it wanted Mubarak to go.

"There's been almost unanimity here in understanding the significance of the American policy vis-a-vis Egypt — namely, you can't trust the Americans. More specifically, you can't trust Barack Obama," Schueftan says.

But Miller, the Woodrow Wilson Center scholar, says given the dynamic situation in Egypt, both sides understand that nothing is guaranteed right now, and what's important is what happens after the dust has settled.

"The critical point will come once the transition is secured and once a process of political reform is under way, to see exactly how constraining the new Egypt is to American interests, how hostile it may be toward Israel's interests," Miller says.

At that point, Miller says, the White House will have to make decisions and calculations on how to maintain its credibility in the region without alienating allies such as Israel. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.