Obama warns Egyptian President Morsi to rein in terrorists in Gaza

President Obama on Monday warned Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi that he must get the violence in Gaza under control.

Frustration in the U.S. over rocket attacks on Israel from Hamas militants is increasingly centered on Egypt, and is expected to raise pointed questions from lawmakers next week about the $2 billion in annual American aid to that country.

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Egypt’s post-Arab Spring government is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological ally of Hamas, which rules in Gaza and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. Israeli security officials argue the rockets hitting the nation’s cities were trucked through Egypt and smuggled through border tunnels into Gaza. 

Lawmakers were already frustrated over Morsi’s response to violent Sept. 11 demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and many are suspicious of his government. The new attacks on Israel are only underlining those concerns. 

Obama took time off his historic trip to Asia on Monday to talk to Morsi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

While a White House reading of Monday’s call said Obama and Morsi “discussed ways to de-escalate the situation in Gaza,” Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he’d been told an earlier call Friday between the two leaders had been “very tense.”

While its new leaders’ sympathies lie with the Palestinians — Morsi recalled his ambassador to Israel last week and condemned Israel’s “wanton aggression” — the government knows it’s dependent on U.S. and international aid.

Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy under President Clinton and an Obama National Security Council official until last year, said Egypt is walking a fine line. 

The main incentive for Morsi to try to stop the violence “is the readiness of the U.S. to be supportive and responsive to helping Egypt economically, provided Egypt plays by a certain set of ground rules, one of which is that it preserves the peace treaty with Israel,” Ross said Monday in a teleconference with reporters after returning from Israel. “And if it’s going to sit aside and allow Hamas to destroy that, obviously it’s not playing by [that] set of ground rules.”

Israeli security officials say the latest round of violence was launched after Gaza militants acquired about 100 advanced Iranian Fajr-5 rockets they say traveled through Egypt. 

Most of the stockpile is believed to have been destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, but the violence has continued as Islamists in Gaza continue firing shorter-range rockets and Israel shifts its response to targeting militants’ homes, causing a surge in civilian deaths in the densely populated strip.

“It used to be that Hosni Mubarak, the previous president, was the man who would bring calm to the region — that was the important role of Egypt, why we’ve invested so much in Egypt,” Schanzer said at a Capitol Hill briefing Monday. “This Egypt has fallen flat, and has shown itself to be irrelevant.”

Morsi raised concerns among some members of Congress immediately upon his election last June as the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. 

Criticism redoubled after he failed for several days to denounce the protesters who scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

That prompted lawmakers to object to the State Department’s request for an emergency infusion of $450 million to the Egyptian government, which has been stuck in limbo ever since.

“This proposal comes to Congress at a point when the U.S.-Egypt relationship has never been under more scrutiny, and rightly so,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, said in announcing the hold in late September. “I am not convinced of the urgent need for this assistance and I cannot support it at this time.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also expressed her opposition to releasing the money.

“The Egyptian government has not gained the trust of the U.S., and the administration’s response ... to cut an unprecedented $450 million check directly to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt is problematic,” she said at the time. “The administration’s proposed cash transfers and other multimillion-dollar requests for Egypt are also on hold by me and other pertinent chairmen.”

Already, Obama critics are sensing in the latest flare-up another occasion to hit the president for what they see as his failure to influence last year’s Arab Spring rebellions in a direction more favorable to U.S. interests.

“Can’t Obama stop his friends in Egypt shelling Israel?” News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch asked on Twitter.