The Middle East Channel

When AIPAC said 'no' to Israel

The U.S.-Israel relationship has entered into a tailspin for the first time since 1991, when Secretary of State James Baker refused loan guarantees to Yitzhak Shamir's Likud government. Now, like then, the issue is Jewish settlements in areas Israel conquered in 1967. When Israel embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden on March 9 by announcing the expansion of an existing East Jerusalem settlement, the reaction from Israel's friends in the press and in Washington was swift. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman likened Benjamin Netanyahu's settler-coddling government to a drunken driver, Hillary Clinton scolded Bibi for 45 minutes over the phone, and pundits across the political spectrum spent an entire week debating just how grave the current "crisis" is.

More interesting, however, is how Israel's self-proclaimed defenders in Washington have reacted to it. Rather than maintaining a neutral stance or endorsing the pro-Israel, anti-settler line espoused by Thomas Friedman and Hillary Clinton, among others, AIPAC chose to denounce the Obama administration in a press release on the eve of its annual conference, urging Obama "to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State" and "make a conscious effort to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel." There was no mention of Netanyahu's politically inflammatory expansion of settlements surrounding Jerusalem, his lack of control over the junior cabinet officials who announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units while Biden was visiting, or steps Israel could take to defuse the crisis.

AIPAC was not always like this.

In the late 1980s, the pro-Israel lobby faced a similar dilemma that jeopardized U.S. military aid to the Jewish state: Israel's refusal to stop selling arms to South Africa's racist apartheid regime. Then, unlike now, AIPAC did not blindly defend the government in Jerusalem and attack the U.S. administration. Rather, it pressured the Israeli government to back down from a myopic and destructive policy that damaged Israel's image and threatened its warm ties with Washington.

In August 1986, as popular anti-apartheid legislation was making the rounds in the U.S. Senate, a paragraph with far-reaching consequences for Israel crept into the bill. It called for the president to document any arms sales to South Africa and "add the option of terminating U.S. military assistance to countries violating the embargo." In Israel, the national-unity government of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir disregarded the bill, convinced that it would never pass.

In Washington, though, leading AIPAC officials believed that Israel's ties with Pretoria were tarnishing the country's image in Congress just as the push for anti-South African sanctions was gaining momentum on the Hill. And they began pressuring the Israeli government to act.

Some of AIPAC's biggest donors were outraged, given that arms sales to South Africa were a major economic windfall for Israel. But unlike the donors, AIPAC's Beltway insiders saw the bigger strategic picture. In their eyes, the ongoing and increasingly publicized military relationship with South Africa was alienating some of the Jewish state's staunchest supporters in Congress, who were also committed to the anti-apartheid cause. Pro-Israel lobbyists believed that attempts by anti-Israel groups to paint the Jewish state as an ally of the racist South African regime would eventually sway the American public unless Israel ceased selling arms to South Africa.

Despite AIPAC's pleas, the Israelis still refused to take the threat seriously. In the upper echelons of the Israeli government, there was a widely held belief that AIPAC and other Jewish organizations, as well as friendly members of Congress, would protect Israel. They were convinced that this threat, like other bumps in the road, would soon pass. AIPAC's lobbyists saw plainly that Israel was shooting itself in the foot, but it would take a few months before this dawned on leaders in Jerusalem.

When President Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act on September 26, 1986, the Israelis felt vindicated. But Congress immediately overrode Reagan's veto with overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act became law a week later--including the amendment threatening to cut off military aid to Israel. It was a rude awakening for Shamir, who left the foreign ministry to take over as Prime Minister on October 20. He was forced to apologize to the AIPAC lobbyists, telling them "Your president told me I didn't have to listen to you." But now, with the anti-apartheid law on the books, he did.

Embarrassed by his miscalculation, Prime Minister Shamir had no choice but to impose sanctions of his own. As two leading Israeli journalists argued in the Washington Post, "Without U.S. military aid, valued at $1.3 billion this year, Israel could soon be defenseless, destitute or both."  Shamir's government now saw the threat clearly and passed a sanctions resolution on March 18, 1987, vowing to sign no new defense contracts with South Africa. Two weeks later came the dreaded U.S. report on South Africa's arms suppliers. It named several European countries as occasional violators of the arms embargo, but the focus was on Israel's arms sales. Damningly, the report's authors concluded, "We believe that the Israeli government was fully aware of most or all of the trade."

Suddenly, American Jewish organizations were forced to acknowledge an unsavory relationship they had downplayed and denied for years and defend Israel's more pressing interest: ongoing military aid from Washington. Pro-Israel organizations such as AIPAC saw the prospect of losing U.S. aid as a much greater threat to the Jewish state than cutting ties with South Africa. As the self-appointed guardians of Israel's interests in Washington, they told Shamir to make sure Israel's measures against South Africa were just as strong as those taken in the United States and Western Europe--export revenues be damned.

Such resolve and foresight is sorely absent today, when AIPAC's reflex is to denounce the White House rather than quietly pressuring the Israeli government to abandon policies that damage its image in Washington and the rest of America. The pro-Israel lobby is not stupid; it has correctly judged that ongoing settlements in greater Jerusalem and the West Bank are not as politically toxic in today's Washington as arms sales to a white supremacist government were in the 1980s. But its ostensibly pro-Israel line is startlingly shortsighted. It allows Israel's government to get away with further settlement expansion that will eventually do grave harm to Israel's long-term survival by undermining the two-state solution.

As with arms sales to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, most clear-eyed observers of the Middle East regard the settlement enterprise as a public diplomacy disaster for Israel--not to mention a long-term strategic liability.

If AIPAC is truly concerned about Israel's long-term security, it should be denouncing new settlements and demanding the dismantlement of existing ones with even greater fervor than the Obama administration. If it does not, AIPAC lobbyists may soon find themselves defending something far more distasteful than 1600 new homes in Ramat Shlomo. As Bibi's own defense minister Ehud Barak acknowledged last month, "as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic...If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a bi-national state, and if they don't, it is an apartheid state."

And when that day comes, AIPAC will have to confront a South African problem far bigger than the one it faced in 1987.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a Senior Editor at Foreign Affairs and the author of the forthcoming book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.

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The Middle East Channel

Egyptian civil society at risk

Reports of a potential new law governing NGOs has sent a shudder through Egypt's civil society. A group of more than 41 NGOs have banded together to oppose the legislation, warning it could be used not only to curtail their activities, but also restrict the ability of groups such as the National Coalition for Change led by Muhammad ElBaradei from campaigning for reform. The new law is also cause for alarm for the Obama administration, whose own change of policies towards some U.S. funding of Egyptian NGOs is seen by activists as having sent the wrong signal to the Mubarak regime. If the U.S. is serious about its declared support for Arab civil society, now is the time for the administration to show its hand.

The alarm in the Egyptian NGO community revolves around a bill drafted by the Ministry of Social Solidarity that could become law within months should the government decide to send it to parliament. The NGO coalition warns that the government is rushing a bill which would "limit the activities of human rights organizations or shut them down completely by criminalizing all forms of unregistered civic organization... [with]  ramifications for some of the most important political reform movements (such as the National Association for Change, Kifaya, April 6th Youth and others)." It warns that the bill would establish "unprecedented control over civil society worse than the crackdown that followed the July 1952 revolution which nationalized political, partisan, syndicate and civic action."

The coalition does not exaggerate.  The bill, whose text has been published in the independent press (Arabic), could decimate independent NGOs and marshall registered ones under the same restrictive state-controlled bureaucracy that political parties and trade unions have suffered. It could also provide a weapon against popular movements such as the National Association for Change headed by former IAEA chief Muhammad ElBaradei, who in recent months has become an unlikely challenger to the 29-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Activists fear that it will be passed by the pliant parliament in time to restrict civil society monitoring of this year's parliamentary election and next year's presidential election, and more generally, dampen political life ahead of a likely presidential succession.

Egypt can ill-afford the stifling of its beleaguered independent civil society.  New ideas and challenges to Egypt's status quo in recent years have mostly come from movements like Kifaya, civil society campaigns against specific issues such as corruption or electoral fraud, human rights associations and political movements that are denied legal status such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They have not come from the official opposition parties, which deserve much criticism for their lack of cohesion and internal democracy, but face more structural constraints. Ever since the late Anwaral-Sadat introduced multi-partyism to Egypt, political parties have operated under the restrictions of a Political Parties Committee (PPC) that, by law, can decide whether or not a party can exist, weigh in on its internal disputes, and even freeze it on the merest of pretexts. The PPC is headed by Safwat al-Sherif, the president of the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, who is also the secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). In practice, then, the NDP can pick and choose its own opposition and punish politicians who cross its red lines.

Many civic organizations, from human rights NGOs to pro-democracy think tanks to single-issue advocacy groups, have been able to escape the grasp of government control by existing as non-profit corporations, legal offices or even health clinics (in the case of associations dealing with victims of torture). This has allowed for the proliferation of a strong and increasingly sophisticated human rights movement, but also for the rise of Kifaya and its many off shoots as a potent platform around which politics can take place outside of the confines of elections. Many now fear that the new law would impose restrictions on civic associations that are as stifling as those imposed on political parties.

What will the Obama administration do about this Egyptian gambit? U.S. policy towards Arab civil society today appears even more muddled and contradictory than it was under the Bush administration. In theory, the U.S. appears eager to promote civil society in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. The Fiscal Year 2010 Congressional Budget Justification for instance says "the United States will support programs to expand civil liberties, introduce transparency and accountability in government, and foster more democratic institutions." While funding for civil society under the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is actually increasing, the way it is distributed may be more important.

In the last year, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and USAID have reverted to a past practice --abandoned in 2004 due to Congressional pressure -- of following Egyptian guidelines and only funding government-approved NGOs. This does not yet apply to grants under MEPI, but, if passed, a new NGO law could essentially have the same effect.  Many believe it was a grave mistake to revert to the pre-2004 funding process. A report by the Project on Middle East Democracy examining U.S. funding found that:

this move has raised alarm -- both within the community of U.S. democracy and human rights supporters as well as among Egyptian democracy advocates and activists -- not only for its negative impact on the potential for genuine reform and improved civic engagement, but also for the signal it sends about the place of democracy and support for civil society in the U.S.-Egypt relationship.

I have confirmed this assessment in many conversations with Egyptian activists -- even those who refuse U.S. funding are aghast that Washington is sending the messageto the Egyptian government that its NGO regulations are acceptable.  Many think the shift in approach has been more damaging than any aid cuts would have been. "It's not about the money, it's about the signal it sent. It has even alarmed activist elsewhere in the region who worry about the precedent it sets," says Bahei Eddin Hassan, a veteran activist who heads the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

In its statement the NGO coalition cites a former Egyptian prime minister as saying the new law has the backing of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and USAID. The embassy denies that either it or USAID have seen the bill, and such an endorsement appears unlikely as it would clash with the repeated concerns over freedom of association noted by the State Department's own annual human rights report.

But the efforts of U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey to repair the strains in the bilateral relationship caused by Bush's policies and congressional cuts in aid to Egypt, a policy of silence on a worsening political climate, may have inadvertently sent the wrong message. It certainly strikes a contrast with senior Obama administration officials who have vowed backing for Arab civil society, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's declaration to the Forum for the Future in Morocco last November:

You have before you people who have paid a big price for standing up for democracy, for fighting against corruption, for asking that government actions be transparent and accountable. And I want to stand with them because the United States stands with them, and we want to be sure that we send a very clear message to the region and to individual leaders that it is in their interest to work with these men and women. It will actually strengthen the legitimacy and create a better atmosphere for helping to improve and develop the societies.

For the moment, the highlights of U.S.-Egypt relations have been administration and congressional approval of a $50 million endowment for Egypt (dubbed by criticsas "the Mubarak Trust Fund") and a $3.2 billion F-16 deal. If Clinton is serious about what she said, she should re-examine policy toward Egypt and make sure Cairo is getting the message, starting by resuming support to unregistered NGOs and stating her opposition to this bill.

Issandr El Amrani is a journalist and political consultant based in Cairo. He writes about North Africa for Middle East International, The Economist, The National and elsewhere, and blogs at

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