WASHINGTON — American military aid to Egypt “can’t be a blank check,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington Tuesday.
The US-Egypt relationship was important to the United States, Menendez said, but Egypt’s “upholding its 1979 peace treaty with Israel” was America’s “bottom line.”
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has a great deal of influence over US foreign aid and the general foreign policy discourse on Capitol Hill. The committee oversees State Department spending and activities, including the $1.3 billion in “military assistance” given each year to Egypt through the State Department’s foreign aid budget.
“The United States derives significant security benefits from our ongoing bilateral military and intelligence relationship with Egypt,” Menendez said. “It has meant close counterterrorism cooperation, privileged access through the Suez Canal, and overflight rights.”
The Israel-Egypt peace accords “are essential to maintaining regional stability and Israel’s security,” he added.
But “American security assistance to Egypt can’t be a blank check…. That’s why Congress made it abundantly clear in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 that US assistance to Egypt would be contingent upon upholding its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. That is our bottom line, and it will remain our bottom line when it comes to the US-Egyptian relationship.”
Despite his warning, Menendez urged strengthening American ties with Egypt in order to encourage the country to move toward democracy and economic stability.
“Those of us who have met with senior Israeli officials since the 2011 revolution have heard concerns about the prospect of suspension of American military assistance to Egypt,” Menendez said. “The November 2012 Israeli military operation in Gaza is a reminder of the critical importance of Egypt as a mediator in the Arab world.”
The United States “should be focusing more of our efforts on keeping Egypt stable by helping a struggling Egyptian economy, which is the context in which I accept Secretary Kerry’s announcement over the weekend pledging $250 million in nonmilitary assistance.”
Menendez also spoke out against “some here in Washington [who] look at the challenges in this new Middle East and advocate disengagement,” an apparent reference to the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot,” or refocus, away from the Middle East as the focus of American foreign policy and toward East Asia and the Pacific.
“I strongly disagree,” Menendez said. “We can’t advocate America’s interests — including the protection of Israel — from the sidelines. We need to roll up our sleeves and engage in support of our ideals, values, and interests.”
America’s challenge in the region, “as clear as it is daunting, [is] to forge long-term, durable relationships with a more democratic Middle East instead of relying on authoritarian regimes that may support our interests one day, but could be gone the next,” he said.