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Obama's reactions to developments in Egypt and Israel speak volumes

Two exceptional developments took place in the Middle East this week; neither Egypt nor Israel had witnessed anything like them before. Never in the past sixty years has a civilian president challenged the authority of the Egyptian military. Similarly, in Israel, no prime minister had, since 1948, demanded and acquired such exceptional policy-making powers and authority. However, their exceptional status is as far as comparisons can go, because the primary motives were entirely different.

Mohammad Morsi's decision to send his former defence minister and chief of staff into early retirement was welcomed in Egypt as a major step toward democratic civilian rule. Benjamin Netanyahu's newly acquired extraordinary powers were viewed in Israel as an important step on the road to war with Iran.

In both instances critics cried foul, fearing that the measures would lead to the concentration of too much power in the hands of one man. Although White House officials claim they were expecting changes in Egypt, they were obviously caught unawares by their timing and sweeping nature. Within hours, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney urged the Egyptian leadership to cooperate with the military and ensure friendly relations with its neighbours, a coy reference to Israel, of course. About Israel, there were no public expressions of concern, despite the constant sabre rattling by Israeli leaders and the menacing and very real threat that they pose to regional stability.

Incredibly, one of the persons who opposed Netanyahu's grab for more powers was his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. His objection was simply procedural; that the matter was not properly discussed in cabinet and so he felt obliged to oppose it. Not even this high profile dissent was enough to sound alarm bells in, or produce so much as a whimper from, Washington.

Another prominent dissenter was Israel's former defence minister, Amir Peretz. He accused Netanyahu of doing everything possible to avoid a serious and open debate about Iran; of being decidedly undemocratic.

Even if Peretz's claims are true, the Obama administration was never expected to give them credence. The US President's relationship with Netanyahu has been frosty at the best of times, and to challenge him in an election year would be to court disaster.

It is worth recalling that at the height of the 2008 election campaign Obama was ruthless in ditching several key advisors when they criticised Israel or advocated a more conciliatory approach towards the Palestinians. The example of Zbigniew Brzezinski was perhaps the most pathetic. When the Obama campaign team was reminded that the veteran former national security advisor had once advocated dialogue with Hamas, he was immediately kept at arms' length; Obama, it was pointed out, had had no contact with him for months.

Four years on and Obama finds himself in a perilous position, on the defensive and seeking re-election from a position of weakness. As far as the pro-Israel lobby is concerned, his administration will go down in history as the one which lost Egypt. Israel's political and military elite are still reeling from the loss of Hosni Mubarak, Omar Sulaiman and Ahmad Shafeeq. This is why the sudden "retirement" of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Anan has been so painful for Washington and Tel Aviv.

Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta rushed to assure the Israelis that Morsi would not cross the military red lines. Nevertheless, the day after Cairo's announcement about the former head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Israeli radio reported that Netanyahu regarded Morsi's move to be worse than the actual overthrow of Mubarak himself. In fact, a few days later, Haaretz newspaper ran an article under the title "Losing our brothers-in-arms" by Zvi Bar'el, who claimed that the threat from Egypt was now worse than Iran.

While such hysteria will resonate in Washington it will have no such impact in Cairo. By moving against the hierarchy of what Egyptians often describe as the "deep state", President Morsi has demonstrated a capacity and a willingness to exercise to the full his executive powers; not as a servant of foreign masters but of his own electorate. His challenge from now on is to ensure that Egyptians can feed themselves, produce their own medicine and develop by themselves a capability to defend their homeland. Only then will the cycle of foreign dependency come to an end.

The coming weeks and months will, inevitably, throw up more surprises from Egypt. Cairo will set the tone for others in the region to follow and set themselves apart from the war mongers, merchants of death and prophets of doom. By changing the balance of power in Egypt in favour of his people, President Morsi has given them their best chance of success in many generations. Although they must now work with him to achieve this, it would have been in the best interests of the international community, including America, to join them as genuine partners for progress and development. Obama's reactions speak volumes about US interests in that respect.

AfricaAsia & AmericasCommentary & AnalysisEgyptIsraelMiddle EastUS
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