It isn't just Egypt lamenting the loss of U.S. military and financial aid: Israel fears a cutoff will hamper Egyptian efforts to quell jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula, where they threaten to destabilize the entire region.
The Obama administration's decision to withhold a significant amount of much-needed military equipment as well as some $260 million in aid to Egypt comes as the nation's interim government is locked in a bloody fight with heavily-armed Islamist militias in the Sinai Peninsula. If the jihadists mustering there can't be stopped, Israeli officials fear they could use the lawless territory to launch attacks not only on Cairo, but also on Israel.
“The situation in Sinai is deteriorating and is becoming of grave concern, not just for Israel, but first and foremost for Egypt, because violence in Sinai is infiltrating into mainland Egypt,” one Israel official told FoxNews.com. “It seems that jihadis are getting bolder every time, and with every action they pose a real threat to national security in Egypt, not to mention to security on the border, and potentially to Israel.”
On Wednesday, the State Department announced that as well as withholding financial aid, the U.S. would suspend the planned delivery to Egypt of anti-ship missiles, 10 Apache helicopters and tanks, equipment seen as essential in helping Egypt’s interim government keep up the fight against radical jihadist groups causing havoc in the vast Sinai desert.
“The decision was wrong. It is a flawed decision in terms of content and timing and raises serious questions over the United States' readiness to provide strategic support to Egypt's security programs,” complained Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdellaty
On Thursday, after a suicide attack in the Sinai city of El Arish killed three policemen and a soldier, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the cutback in aid is not a sign the U.S. is abandoning Egypt, its strongest Arab ally for decades.
“By no means is this a withdrawal from our relationship or a severing of our serious commitment to helping the [Egyptian] government,” Kerry said.
But Israeli officials fear the U.S. decision has already emboldened jihadis, many with links to Al Qaeda. In recent days they exploded bombs in Cairo, including at a major gas plant, and concerns are growing that the crackdown by Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sisi against the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamic groups could falter if the government runs out of funds or the military hardware to fight a potential insurgency.
The U.S. decision followed the Obama administration’s earlier move not to deliver F-16 fighter jets to Egypt as a protest against the removal of President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“After the events in the course of this summer, the President…asked for a review of our assistance relationship with Egypt," a senior U.S. State Department official said. "As a result of that review directed by the President, we have decided to recalibrate our assistance to Egypt to ensure that it’s being effectively used to advance all of our objectives.”
U.S. law effectively demands a cessation of aid to any country that has undergone a military coup. The gray area in Egypt -- and the source of much debate in the U.S. -- is whether or not this was a military coup, as the military was supported and continues to be supported by much of the Egyptian population. But Sisi has ruled Egypt with an iron fist since taking over the reins of power and there has been much bloodshed as the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, has been forced on the run, its leaders captured and held in custody, and its most prominent supporters rounded up.
“We have made our opinion known in Washington that we believe everything must be done to stabilize Egypt and to stand by the Egyptian government, even if recent developments have not been exactly democratic," the Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told FoxNews.com. "The important thing is to put Egypt back on track.
“Only then would it be possible to talk about a more prosperous economy, about more freedom and more democracy," he added.
Israel’s longstanding 1979 peace agreement with Egypt provides for essential U.S. aid for both countries, and both countries have been close allies of the U.S. since then. Regional analysts speculate that Obama’s stance could alienate Egypt and force the country's leaders to forge new regional alliances. Saudi Arabia has already supported Egypt with more than $12 billion in aid and is at the top of that list, a position no doubt strengthened by temporary Egyptian President Mansour’s visit there earlier this week on his first overseas trip.
The Israeli military is watching very closely across its border with Sinai, determined not to allow a repetition of the rocket attacks on its holiday resort of Eilat that occurred in August. There are growing fears that if Egypt is left without sufficient weaponry to fight the well-funded jihadists and Al Qaeda elements in Sinai, the situation could escalate further and at some point down the line Israel might feel it is left with no option but to act unilaterally to secure its own borders and the safety of its own citizens.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @ paul _ alster and at www.paulalster.com