As Washington debates whether to cut off America’s $1.5 billion in annual assistance to Egypt, few countries are watching with more interest than Israel. On Monday the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported that Israeli officials have urged President Barack Obama to keep subsidizing Cairo despite the legal prohibition on U.S. aid to governments installed by military coup. That’s no surprise: “Israel has always been a very strong proponent of the assistance program,” says Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Cairo. “It is in Israel’s interest that the U.S. maintain a very strong relationship with Egypt.” But understanding why that is goes to the heart of America’s relationship with Egypt–and why Obama is so reluctant to disrupt it.
Israel is the prime reason why Egypt has for nearly 25 years been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. (The top recipient is–you guessed it–Israel.) American largesse began flowing to Cairo in 1979, after Egypt’s then-president, Anwar Sadat, signed the September 1978 Camp David accords establishing peace between Egypt and Israel. That was a remarkable development, considering the two nations had conducted four armed conflicts in the first 25 years of Israel’s existence, and given the deep hostility within Egypt towards the Jewish state.