A spirited debate erupted on the floor of the Senate this week over cutting off aid to Egypt. Ultimately, Rand Paul's amendment to spend a billion and a half of aid to Egypt rebuilding American infrastructure instead—something Paul also doesn't like, but used as a plea to Barack Obama for support—fell in a lopsided 86 to 13 defeat. But not before a robust discussion about Israeli interests and who would speak for them. You heard that right: aside from amorphous and oblique references to harm done to American "national security," the hot topic of conversation was whether cutting aid would hurt Israel or not.
There's certainly something to it. Early last month, Haaretz reported that the Israeli government launched a full-court-press, using both political and military channels, to urge the Americans to keep aid flowing to Egypt. Less than a week later, on CBS's Face the Nation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after urging America toward hawkish action on Iran, said of American aid to Egypt: "Look, that's an internal American decision. But, again, our concern is the peace treaty with Egypt. One of the foundations of that peace treaty was the U.S. aid given to Egypt." U.S. aid for Egypt flows from its peace treaty with Israel; upholding the 1979 Camp David Accords has long served as the chief impetus behind more than a billion dollars of military subsidies for decades. But what was remarkable about the hearing on Paul's amendment was how nakedly these Senators appealed to the desires of Israel and its stateside advocates—even, as Paul repeatedly, and correctly, pointed out as continuing aid to Egypt flouts American law.
Even Paul cited Israel's security in his argument for ending assistance to Egypt's military: "I fear one day someone may arise in Egypt who says: Let's attack Israel with these planes. Let's attack Israel with these tanks," he said, in his sometimes rambling opening argument. But by far the most—and most sensible—peans to Israel's security came from the five Senators who spoke in opposition to the amendment: Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Bob Corker (R-TN), Jim Inhofe (R-OK) Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and John McCain (R-AZ), who even got into it with Paul about what American groups spoke with authority on Israel's interests.
Inhofe, the first to speak, set the tone. "If you have any feelings at all toward our good friends, our best friends in the Middle East—that is Israel—then you cannot consider this amendment. Israel has all of the interests at stake," he said. "We cannot do this to our friends in Israel and our other allies in the Middle East." He went on at length. Then Menendez made one of those references to American security when he said the Senate must consider "implications for U.S. national security and for our ally Israel." Later, he elaborated on those concerns—the Israeli ones, at least: "When you have hundreds of tunnels in the Sinai being used by extremists to send weapons into Gaza to attack Israel, it is about their security."
The Sinai had reportedly come up in Israeli officials' phone calls with Washington, too, but Menendez had gotten a little reminder from the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). That much became clear when Graham read into the Congressional record a letter from AIPAC. "I asked them to comment on this," Graham, who called cutting of aid "a nightmare for Israel," said when introducing the letter, adding it was addressed to Sens. Menendez and Corker. (Why they had to ask AIPAC when the Haaretz report and Netanyahu's suggestion were so unambiguous remains unclear.) Graham concluded by reading the missive from Washington's most influential pro-Israel lobby group :
We are writing to express our concerns over the Paul amendment to the Transportation/HUD Appropriations bill that would eliminate military assistance and sales to Egypt. We do not support cutting off all assistance to Egypt at this time, as we believe it could increase the instability in Egypt and undermine important U.S. interests and negatively impact our Israeli ally.
As you know, Egypt is the largest Arab state in the Middle East and has played a vital role in advancing key U.S. interests in that region. Citing just two examples, the government of Egypt has maintained the peace with Israel and is taking important steps to address the instability in the Sinai.
Events in Egypt are rapidly evolving, and we believe that for now the United States should avoid taking any precipitous actions against Egypt such as cutting off all assistance. We look forward to continuing to work with you on these critical issues.
McCain quickly latched onto the letter in his own speech against Paul's position: "I don't think it is an accident that AIPAC, our friends there who represent the interests of the State of Israel, have opposed this amendment," he said. Later, McCain—who tried to stop Paul to ask a question but was rebuffed with a raised index finger and curt "Not now"—fired another salvo when the floor was finally yielded to him: "Isn't the question whether the Senator from Kentucky knows what is better for Israel or Israel knows what is better for Israel? The fact is, AIPAC and the Israelis are adamantly opposed to this amendment; isn't that correct?" Menendez piled on: "It is true they are opposed, and I would assume Israel, a sovereign state, knows what its security interests better than anybody else."
On the defensive, Paul again cited his rationale of reducing danger to Israel by keeping arms away from Egypt, but also challenged AIPAC. He said he'd held "both private and public discussions with the leaders of Israel" and meets "daily and weekly" with delegates from "probably 20 different" pro-Israel groups, where "the grassroots and not to the so-called leadership" opposed aid to Egypt. "Let me speak to the entire crowd at an AIPAC meeting and we will see whether they like sending more weapons to the Muslim Brotherhood [sic] or more weapons to Egypt," he challenged. "I think you will find a resounding no."
Perhaps Paul's most salient point, amid the rambling, was that an American law requires the U.S. to cut off aid to a country in the event of a military coup d'état. Some of the Senators in opposition conceded that events in Egypt did constitute a coup. But, as Paul pointed out, "I didn't hear one of them explain how they are going to adhere to the law"—and none did before the amendment went down by a six to one margin. Perhaps they were too busy explaining Israel's security interests and who gets to speak for them on the floor of the U.S. Senate.