Why did Egypt risk ties to Israel and Trump with UN resolution?

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Egypt on Wednesday night circulated a draft U.N. Security Council resolution calling upon Israel to “immediately and completely” cease all construction in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem. The next day, Egypt announced it had postponed the move, after U.S. President-elect Donald Trump spoke out against it after reportedly coming under Israeli pressure to do so.

But the very fact that the draft was considered in the first place is unexpected. Cairo and Jerusalem are arguably closer than at any time in their history.

Egypt relies on Israeli security support at home, as well as diplomatic support in an often-hostile international arena — including Washington. Their respective militaries and intelligence services are in constant contact over securing the volatile territories between them: Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula (where an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, affiliate has waged a nearly six-year insurgency) and the Gaza Strip, governed by the two countries’ shared adversary Hamas.

Egypt’s foreign minister traveled to Jerusalem this summer — the first visit by Cairo’s top diplomat in nearly a decade — and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has raised the prospect of closer bonds with his eastern neighbor should peace with the Palestinians move forward.

{mosads}Visiting Egypt shortly before the U.S. election, I witnessed the thaw between the two former foes myself. Egyptian top brass gushed over their security cooperation with the Jewish state, and described the country and its friends as their “lawyers in Washington” amid their own strained ties with the White House.

Moreover, Trump’s election last month was met with near-euphoria in both countries. In Cairo, Sisi saw the Republican’s victory as bringing a welcome end to the Obama administration’s persistent human rights criticism, and more fulsome support for his government’s battle against political and extremist Islam.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was similarly bullish, eager to move past nearly eight years of strained ties with the White House in favor of an administration seemingly prepared to toe his government’s line on most major issues — not least of them settlements. Trump’s election has been widely expected to produce a solid U.S.-Egyptian-Israeli alliance.

The timing of this week’s resolution is therefore all the more peculiar. Within hours of the news breaking Wednesday night, at 3:30 a.m. local time, Netanyahu took to Twitter to urge the U.S. to veto the measure, and Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that the Israeli embassy in Washington made calls to Trump’s team, and to Egyptian officials, to protest.

Trump’s aides then placed their own calls to Cairo, the president-elect posted his own tweet, and Sisi himself ultimately placed a call to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s home in Florida.

The inevitable question is what Cairo thought it would gain from such a resolution. Trump will be president in less than a month, after all, and Egypt will continue to need Israel’s diplomatic and security backing over the coming years. A Haaretz reporter said he had spoken to 10 diplomats — from Israel, the U.S. and EU — and none had an answer.

One plausible explanation is Arab pressure. The Palestinian issue remains an emotive one on the Arab street, and the U.N. has long distinguished itself as a forum where even outlandish resolutions against Israel are passed without much fuss. Self-righteous bluster against Israel at the U.N. is a time-honored tradition for Arab states, and Egypt is currently the lone Arab member of the Security Council.

Indeed, had it reached the Security Council before Trump’s inauguration, the measure may have escaped the customary U.S. veto of resolutions against Israel. The Obama administration was reportedly planning to abstain from the new vote, with Secretary of State John Kerry even planning an address for Thursday justifying the abstention and laying out the outgoing administration’s vision for regional peace.

Beyond that, Egypt could have been engaging in a display of diplomatic independence. In the three years since the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power — during which the Obama administration withheld part of its military aid to protest perceived regime abuses — Cairo has striven to expand its circle of diplomatic allies.

In recent months, it hosted Russia for Moscow’s first-ever military drill in Egypt, has bought big-ticket military equipment from France and Germany, and is building a new administrative capital outside Cairo with funds from China.

And yet the bedrock of Egypt’s diplomatic and security relationship remains the United States. During my visit, Egyptian officials never tired of reminding me of that fact, even while blasting Washington’s alleged abandonment of its ally and justifying the expansion of their international Rolodex.

Washington provides Cairo with $1.3 billion in annual aid (a sum second only to aid to Israel), and for decades has supplied its military with high-caliber U.S. arms and equipment that no other country can replace. Cairo is fully aware that Washington is, despite challenges to its dominance from Beijing to Moscow, the world’s lone superpower for the foreseeable future.

That’s why poking Washington’s closest Middle Eastern ally — an ally that Cairo increasingly needs, itself — is so odd, and why Egypt appears to have buckled so quickly to withdraw the draft. The coming days may shed light on whether the resolution was a misstep by Egypt (did it not expect Trump to weigh in?), an attempt to reassert itself regionally or driven by some other objective.

But as we ring in the new year, we ought to prepare for the prospect that President-elect Trump’s upset win will yield not only endless surprises in Washington, but further unforeseen turns at the U.N.

Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @OrenKessler.

This piece was updated on Dec. 23, 2016 at 12:26 p.m.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Donald Trump Egypt Israel John Kerry Resolution Security Council Settlement U.N. UN United Nations

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