President Obama did not meet with Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi or Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu — the leaders of America’s two closest Middle East partners — when he was in New York last week to speak to the United Nations General Assembly. There are sound foreign policy and political reasons why.
Rarely have relations between Washington and these nations been more out of whack. The relationships with both are too big to fail. Still, for Washington, managing them will be much tougher in the period ahead as Israel and Egypt look to their own interests, with much less regard for Washington’s.
For almost four decades America’s relationships with Israel and Egypt have been the main pillars of its Middle East policies. In the years following the historic Camp David peace process, which ultimately led to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, these two countries together received annually 45% of America’s total foreign assistance.
In matters of peace and war, Washington traditionally looked to Israel and Egypt for support, forbearance and, at times, restraint and understanding. There were periods of tension and disconnect, to be sure. But figuring out where the two stood on any issue was rule No. 1 in Middle East diplomacy. In my travels with both Republican and Democratic secretaries of State over the years, these were invariably our first and second stops.
But there are sound tactical reasons why the president may have decided not to see each leader now. Busy with the election campaign, politics are the priority, unless of course you count the meeting with Barbara Walters et al of “The View” as a bilateral.
Not seeing Morsi was politics plus common sense. There was no point in creating a buddy-buddy image of Obama and Morsi after the Egyptian government’s failure to prevent the recent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo over an anti-Islamic video and its slow response once it began. Why give the Romney campaign a free whack at the White House? With nothing to announce on the bilateral side, it was just as well that the meeting not take place. And Morsi is scheduled to visit later in the year.
Not seeing Netanyahu was bit trickier. Straight politics this close to a presidential election might have demanded it. But the relationship between these two leaders is bad. And Netanyahu’s recent public challenge to the U.S. to set a “red line” on the Iran nuclear issue didn’t make it any better. A detailed discussion on Iran is necessary. But a meeting with Netanyahu on the margins of the U.N. gathering was the wrong time and place for that. Not seeing Morsi also helped provide a nice pretext and balance to not seeing Netanyahu. Friday’s much-publicized phone call between the U.S. and Israeli leaders (rarely touted this way in the trade) is an effort to patch things up and begin that process.
Still, the meet-or-not-to-meet issue reflects a much deeper dysfunction in each relationship, which may not be so easily or conveniently managed. With the Israelis, the problem isn’t structural as much as the personal and policy conflicts between the president and the prime minister. The institutional aspects of U.S.-Israel relationship and cooperation between the two are actually quite good.
The disconnect is on the personality side. Netanyahu sees the president as insensitive to Israel’s fears and needs — almost bloodless. Obama looks at Netanyahu as insincere and manipulative, a con man who thinks only about Israeli needs with no reciprocity even while he pretends to be sensitive to U.S. concerns. Combine this with fundamental differences on issues that include the peace process and when and how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and, to paraphrase the Bard, something is rotten in Barack and Bibi land.
With Egypt, the challenge for the U.S. is how to maintain a close relationship with a traditional friend that now sees the world much differently than we do. Unlike U.S. ties with Israel, the bond between the U.S. and Egypt rests less on shared values and more on shared interests. Under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, America cut a deal with each of these acquiescent authoritarians. We’ll stay out of your internal affairs — essentially give you a pass on governance and human rights issues and provide assistance — and you support our interests in matters of war, security and peace.
The election of an Egyptian president from the Muslim Brotherhood has called into question both the values and the interests. Mubarak’s Egypt was hardly democratic and had an awful record on human rights. But Morsi is still tied to a party that’s exclusionist, spews anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and even anti-American rhetoric, and whose views on gender equality and Egypt’s Christian minority are very worrisome. Combine that with policy differences on how to deal with Israel, the peace process, Hamas and the challenge of Islamic militancy, and there’s a real possibility that Obama’s remark that Egypt is neither an ally nor an enemy will become an enduring reality. It’s striking that Morsi’s U.N. speech didn’t even refer once to the U.S.
America has no choice but to try to keep both of these traditional friends close.
But America’s role as senior partner in the triangular relationship born in the wake of the Camp David accords is going to erode. Egypt and Israel are likely to be increasingly at odds with each other and with America over issues as diverse as the peace process and Iran. Indeed, Israel and Egypt now say no to America without much cost or consequence.
The days of America’s unchallenged preeminence in this particular corner of the Middle East are coming to an end. The days of adjusting to its diminished influence and the renewed assertiveness of its traditional partners have just begun. By the look of things so far, it won’t be an easy transition.
Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.”