As U.S. Explores Dialogue with Muslim Brotherhood, Israelis Urge a Tougher Line Against Islamists’ Rise

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Amr Nabil / AP

Egyptians in a minibus pass under electoral posters with pictures of candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Dec. 12, 2011

Unlike its predecessor, the Obama Administration has understood the limits on Washington’s ability to remake the Middle East to its own specifications. The corollary, of course, is that in a rapidly democratizing region, refusal to engage with political Islam will leave the U.S. increasingly isolated from the Arab mainstream. As a result, the Administration has begun holding high-level meetings with those it has traditionally shunned, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But whatever their diplomatic logic, such moves may carry a not insubstantial domestic political cost in an election season in which the President’s rivals are keen to paint him as insufficiently supportive of Israel.

Election results in Egypt, Tunisia and even Morocco confirm the Islamists as the dominant political current within the newly empowered Arab public. The same trend has been clear in every Iraqi election since the ouster of Saddam Hussein and in the most recent Palestinian election, and there’s no reason  to believe the outcome will be much different when and if elections are held in Libya and Syria. Political Islam is hardly Washington’s cup of tea: it is rooted in a view of society quite at odds with Western liberalism and is ready to challenge unwanted U.S. intervention in the Middle East and to confront Israel over the Palestinians. But long gone is the Bush-era illusion that Arab democracy would produce regimes ready to befriend Israel and ally with Washington. And while the likes of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may castigate the Obama Administration for failing to prop up the Mubarak dictatorship, the Arab public has demonstrated over the past year that its democratic aspirations can no longer be kept in check by unelected strongmen, except at an unconscionable price in blood.

So the meeting of U.S. officials with Muslim Brotherhood leaders represents a pragmatic acknowledgement that the party represents the mainstream of public opinion in a country that has traditionally been a U.S. ally and remains a beacon of influence throughout the Arab world. It also reflects an opportunity for both sides to start a long-suppressed conversation that could allow some rethinking of the relationship. After all, taking the reins of government — and with them the responsibility for delivering a better life for all Egyptians amid a flailing economy — enforces a certain pragmatism in the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants relations with Western countries. And given the coming struggle for political control between the elected parliament, which will be led by the Brotherhood, and a junta of generals representing a military that has long been a U.S. client, Washington could yet play an important role in smoothing the transition to democracy and ensuring stability.

One source of U.S. anxiety over the Islamists’ election victory is the question of whether the Brotherhood would uphold Egypt’s 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel. Its electoral representative, the Freedom and Justice Party, undertook in its manifesto to uphold all of Egypt’s international agreements. But the movement’s deputy leader, Rashad al-Bayoumi, caused a stir around New Year’s by suggesting that Egypt may choose to revise the treaty and that the Egyptian public ought to be given the right to decide the matter — presumably through a referendum.

Al-Bayoumi also said that the Brotherhood would never recognize Israel, although that’s not exactly an uncommon position in Arab politics. Even the moderate U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement has never formally recognized Israel, and nor have a number of U.S.-allied governments of Arab and Muslim countries. (The 2002 peace plan presented by the Saudis and adopted by the Arab League promised recognition only if Israel agrees to withdraw to its 1967 borders, a formula Israel has rejected.)

Egypt’s Islamists are unlikely to make the peace treaty with Israel their central focus given the challenges facing a new government elected by a population suffering most from the country’s endemic economic stagnation. And there are plenty of reasons to expect that the Islamists will be restrained from breaking a treaty that could plunge Egypt back into war and jeopardize the interests of a military that will remain a central influence even if it did yield the reins of power to a civilian government — a prospect far from certain at this stage. Such is the imbalance in military capability between Israel and its neighbors that the Israelis would easily prevail in any conventional conflict, which would be catastrophic for any Egyptian government.

Still, the Brotherhood’s political triumph heralds the onset of a new disposition among Arab governments far less accepting of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians and far more willing to challenge Israel — a trend of which Israel has had a foretaste in recent years in its political clashes with Turkey, whose moderate Islamist government is hailed as a role model by many of the Arab Islamist parties. And the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood governments on its borders has alarmed the Israelis, who remain hostile to the idea of engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood — the parent organization of Hamas. The Economist reports that following the fall of Mubarak, some Israeli diplomats in Egypt had recommended making overtures to Brotherhood leaders but were “told from on high to desist.”

The Obama Administration could also be urged to desist by the Israeli leadership, whose National Security Council last weekend branded President Obama’s response to the rise of the Brotherhood “naive.” While the Council — according to pro-Netanyahu paper Israel Hayom —  recognized “that the Muslim Brotherhood would eventually assume power in most Arab countries,” it recommended that Israel’s government focus its efforts on persuading Washington to take a “harder stance” against political Islam.

That position is unlikely to jibe with the thinking of an Obama Administration adjusting to a changed reality in which the Brotherhood and similar parties have emerged as the Arab world’s political mainstream. If, as the Israeli National Security Council concurs, the Muslim Brotherhood will likely become the ruling party in most Arab countries that undergo a democratic transition, then maintaining a boycott of the organization would effectively isolate the U.S. from the most dynamic sector of the Arab world. To the extent that the U.S. has any interests in the Middle East beyond protecting Israel — and even, arguably, in pursuit of that goal — keeping the Muslim Brotherhood at arm’s length may be an untenable position.

Still, it’s a safe bet that President Obama will take flak on the campaign trail for any outreach to the Brotherhood, as GOP hopefuls try to outdo one another in professions of fealty to Israel, and also on Capitol Hill where Netanyahu commands the sort of bipartisan consensus Obama can only dream of.

But beyond the water’s edge, the Administration may have no option. The paucity of alternatives was graphically illustrated by talks in Jordan on Jan. 3 among representatives of Abbas, Netanyahu and “Quartet” representative Tony Blair, held under the auspices of the Jordanian government. Those talks, most of whose participants represent political forces being eclipsed in a changing Arab world, had the ring of an annual reunion of the failed peace process — although analysts on all sides of the divide saw them also as a symptom of the participants’ shared fear of rising Islamism. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians actually believed anything would come of those talks, with officials on both sides suggesting they were being held because of Jordan’s urgent need to show progress on the issue. Hamas — the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood — probably spoke for the majority of Palestinians when it dismissed the Jordan talks as futile. The same sentiment was expressed by Marwan Barghouti, the most popular leader in Abbas’ own Fatah movement and quite possibly his successor, in a statement from inside the Israeli prison cell where he’s serving multiple life sentences on a terrorism conviction.

The Arab rebellion has not been kind to Abbas, whose role in Palestinian political life is likely to become increasingly marginal. His rivals in Hamas were able to digest the loss of its longtime host regime in Damascus and still emerge on the upswing, enjoying the support not only of Egypt’s government in waiting but also of key emerging regional players such as Turkey and Qatar, all of whom appear likely to encourage a turn away from violence by the movement. But for Abbas, the loss of his political patron Hosni Mubarak was a body blow; Jordan’s brittle regime is hardly a reassuring alternative, and there’s little that Washington can do to bolster his support, being bound by U.S. domestic politics to refrain from making any demands of Netanyahu. The changing regional landscape and the failure of the peace process have pushed Abbas to commit to a reconciliation agreement with Hamas to create a new and more representative Palestinian leadership. Regardless of when and whether such a deal goes through, however, it has become increasingly clear that the U.S.-Israeli goal of sidelining Hamas has failed as the movement has reaffirmed its status as an intractable part of representative Palestinian politics.

For the Israeli government, that’s another reason to be skeptical of trying to negotiate a peace deal any time soon. Instead, Israel’s leaders talk of circling the wagons against the Islamist tide and warning that now is no time to make compromises and concessions. And as the political median in Israel continues to move steadily to the right, many doubt that it’s politically feasible for an Israeli government to withdraw substantial numbers of settlers from the West Bank.

But the status quo is unlikely to be accepted by the Palestinians or the newly empowered Arab publics, and Israel is likely to face an escalating challenge on the ground as the main Palestinian political currents begin to converge on the principle of unarmed resistance. The Obama Administration may well have recognized the train wreck in the making and is clearly seeking to open up new channels of dialogue in the hope of influencing the behavior of key players. But in an election season in which the President is routinely accused by GOP rivals of being insufficiently supportive of Israel, that country’s calls for the Administration to support the Israeli hard line on political Islam will certainly raise the domestic political price of any U.S. outreach effort.