As pressure mounts on Washington to cut off U.S. military aid to Egypt, Cairo has found an awkward ally in the form of AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby firm that is actively pushing for continued U.S. aid to Egypt.
Long considered an incentive for Cairo to maintain peaceful ties with Israel, America's $1.3 billion package in annual U.S. military assistance to Egypt has come under global criticism as Egypt's military continues its bloody crackdown against anti-government protesters with U.S.-funded tanks and tear gas.
AIPAC, which was credited with helping kill an amendment to cut Egyptian aid in July, is now operating behind the scenes in private meetings with lawmakers to keep alive Cairo's funding, congressional aides from both political parties said.
"They made and continue to make their views known on this issue," a congressional aide tells The Cable. "But on an issue like aid to an Arab country, my experience with AIPAC has generally been that they will not be terribly vocal in public. To be sure, they feel strongly about keeping the aid flowing, but I wouldn't expect a massive call in and letter writing campaign."
Another aide from the opposite party concurred. "On sensitive issues like this, AIPAC will 'lobby' very quietly, by reaching out to select influential folks on the Hill," he said. "It's not in the Egyptian military's or Israel's interest to have AIPAC loudly supporting Egyptian FMF."
Publicly, few governments or lobbying firms want to be viewed as supportive of a crackdown that has led to more than 800 deaths and thousands of injuries across Egypt. In Israel, where the Netanyahu government has been largely silent on the issue, officials are said to be aware of how an endorsement of the aid package could backfire given Israel's unpopularity in the Middle East. But privately, officials aren't shedding tears about the military crackdown on the Islamist movement Muslim Brotherhood.
An AIPAC source speaking with The Cable on the condition of anonymity insisted that aid to Egypt was not a top issue for the lobbying group. But the source noted that AIPAC's support for the aid was not contingent on the way Egypt treats anti-government protesters. "The primary criteria on how we evaluate this issue is if Egypt is adhering to the peace treaty," the source said, referring to the 1979 peace accord that normalized relations between Egypt and Israel. "We realize that the situation is very fluid and that policymakers will have a range of considerations on this matter."
Although AIPAC has gone relatively quiet in recent weeks, some congressional aides expressed surprise at how publicly the group moved to kill an amendment sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul in July that would've suspended aid to Egypt until it holds free and fair elections. In a letter sent to Sen. Robert Menendez, chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking member, the group opposed the amendment saying it "could increase instability in Egypt and undermine important U.S. interests and negatively impact our Israeli ally." The letter was read aloud on the Senate floor by Sen. Lindsey Graham before the amendment was soundly defeated in an 86-13 vote.
"To be honest, I was a little surprised they went as far as they did with the public letter during debate over the Paul amendment," said a congressional aide, emphasizing AIPAC's preference for quiet lobbying on such issues. Another aide noted that the group made their opposition to suspending aid "loud and clear" in the July letter, adding that further efforts would be "overkill."
Emphasizing its other priorities, an AIPAC source told The Cable the group's main issue remains Iran. "Our priority right now is to lobby for increased sanctions and pressure on the Iranian regime to stop their nuclear program," said the source. "That's our legislative priority."