Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s trouncing of his rivals in the Egyptian polls, and the new government in Ramallah, may set both US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu back to the square they occupied in November 2012, say DEBKA Weekly’s Middle East experts.
At that time, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to engineer a new alliance in the region, including Turkey, Qatar, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. (For more details on this short-lived initiative, see next item in this week’s issue).
Since Obama has gained the reputation of once getting hold of an idea, never letting go, Middle East and Washington mavens shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that, despite temporary deviations, he never really dropped its patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Wednesday, May 4, after El-Sisi’s win became official, the White House said politely the US “looks forward to working with El-Sisi to advance our strategic partnership and our many shared interests” but then went on to demand that the new president adopt democratic and political reforms and to express concerns about the “restrictive political environment” of his landslide victory.
Couched in diplomatic vernacular, Washington was telling the new president that future relations hinged on his lifting the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and giving it free rein to operate as a political party.
That message was reinforced two days earlier by US acceptance of the Palestinian unity government in Ramallah, which opened the door to American recognition and acceptance of Hamas, banned in Egypt (like the US) as a terrorist organization.
El-Sisi has a special beef with Hamas, as offspring and ally of the Brotherhood and harboring its underground in the Gaza Strip for organizing subversive and terrorist operations against the Egyptian army and regime.
US military aid to Egypt first unfrozen, then suspended
Then Wednesday, delays cropped up in the delivery of the Apache helicopters which US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had promised Egypt to aid its counterterrorism operations in Sinai.
The delays were accompanied by a demand to improve Cairo’s human rights record, and most of all, end the crackdown that has put hundreds of Brotherhood operatives on death row.
El-Sisi was incensed by this delay, viewing it as inappropriate US pressure and interference in Egypt’s domestic affairs.
However, in the meantime, the frequent assaults launched by the Brotherhood, abetted by Hamas and al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Sinai, began to tail off towards the end of 2013 and the first quarter of 2014 – ostensibly due to effective Egyptian intelligence and security counteraction.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources offer a different explanation: US undercover operatives in Gaza and Sinai are reported to have acted preemptively to bring Muslim Brotherhood attacks on Egypt military and regime targets to a standstill, as a step toward promoting the burying of the hatchet between Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
(More details about the political consequences of this US move in a separate piece in this issue).
Obama turns to using proxies for military action
This step was part of a larger American master plan, which calls for a major push for stability under friendly regimes in a broad region encompassing Egypt, Libya and its oil fields and crossing the Suez Canal to sweep up the lawless Sinai Peninsula and terrorist-ridden Gaza Strip.
The Obama has fixed on this blueprint as his primary goal for the Middle East.
Disheartened by his attempts to establish game-changing alliances in the region, the US president is now working through trusted surrogates – nations or groups – for military action to reach his objectives.
(In this regard see also DEBKA Weekly 636 of May 23, “America’s Quiet Return to the Mid-East – Stabilizing Libyan oil to Offset Russia’s Energy Leverage against Europe.”)
The seed planted in Cairo in November 2012, for Hamas’ attachment to a regional alliance and bid to isolate – if not unseat Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – through the ballot box, is discernible in current US actions.
The healing of the seven-year rift in the Palestinian movement between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank authorities has given Washington the chance to let Hamas into the West Bank by the back door, while paying lip service to the ostensibly Hamas-clean “government of technocrats.”
Washington envisages Muslim Brotherhood flag on West Bank too
So while Abbas has won kudos for forging the united government as a stage on the road to a Palestinian state – and a kick in the teeth for Israel and Binyamin Netanyahu – the Jan 2, 2015 elections to the Palestinian presidency and parliament will almost certainly raise Hamas to power against Fatah.
Obama would be rewarded by seeing the Muslim Brotherhood flag planted on the West Bank and its takeover of power in the future Palestinian state, as a stage in restoring the movement’s fortunes in Egypt.
But Abu Mazen is not done yet. He has announced he will go to Cairo for El-Sisi’s inauguration as president and no doubt use the opportunity to forge ties with the new Egyptian ruler. But standing in his way is his archenemy, the disgraced Fatah high-up Muhammad Dahlan. After being exiled from Ramallah, Dahlan built a fortune in the Gulf and moved to Cairo, where he has the ear of President El-Sisi. Dahlan makes no bones about his ambition to supplant Abbas whom he calls the “Palestinian dictator.”
Given the troubles in his home camp, Abbas by choosing Hamas as partner demonstrated weakness and his shrinking options, rather than strength.
Israel’s shrinking options and widening rift with Washington
In November 2012, the Israeli prime minister trusted in Clinton’s new alliance to empower him for undercutting Mahmoud Abbas’ scheme to bypass direct peace negotiations with Israel and achieve Palestinian statehood unilaterally.
Netanyahu’s views have not changed, only the players; and the dilemmas he faces today are more daunting than ever.
By quiet under-the-counter understandings with the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and the new Egyptian president, the Israeli prime minister hopes to check Abbas’ moves.
At the same time, that would give Hamas the edge – which his new allies, who are fighting the Muslm Brotherhood tooth and nail, would not tolerate. They regard Hamas as an integral arm of their enemy.
For Israel, too, Hamas and its leaders are incorrigible terrorists, who are dedicated to its destruction.
So where does that leave the Netanyahu government?
With vanishing options and a widening rift with the Obama administration over its backing for Hamas – on top of the gaping abyss dividing them over Iran, Syria and Hizballah.
The gap will not shrink if Netanyahu goes through with his plan to persuade the US Congress to veto the continuation of US funding of approximately half a million dollars per annum to the Palestinians under their new Hamas-backed government.
Calculating that he has not much left to lose, Netanyahu promoted a new wave of settlement construction that keeps most of his coalition partners off his back.