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In backing change in Egypt, U.S. neoconservatives split with Israeli allies

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 11:25 PM

The uprising in Egypt has resulted in a relatively muted debate between the political parties in the United States - at least so far - with Republican lawmakers mostly backing the Obama administration's approach or registering minor disagreements.

But the events in Cairo have exposed a schism between two longtime allies: neoconservative Republicans, who strongly advocate democracy and the George W. Bush "freedom agenda" around the globe, and Israelis, who fear that a popularly chosen Islamist regime could replace that of President Hosni Mubarak.

Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu likened the situation in Egypt to that of Iran, making the menacing prediction that a post-Mubarak Egypt could join other "repressive regimes of radical Islam." The sentiment has been widespread in the Israeli press - and roundly dismissed by prominent American Jewish neoconservatives, who do not see a takeover of the Egyptian government by the Muslim Brotherhood as inevitable.

"There's been an Israeli position which is, 'We love Mubarak,' that permeates their whole society, the political class," said Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser in the last Bush administration. "That certainly differs from many of us in the pro-Israel camp in the United States."

Abrams said he has made the case to wary Israelis that they would be foolish to build a future relationship with an aging ruler who has served for decades and "presided over unprecedented anti-Semitism in the media" in Egypt, rather than to take a gamble on a potentially more liberal and popular government.

Other neoconservatives in the United States have agreed. "Obviously there are a million problems: Transitions are hard, and you have to worry about who takes over," said conservative commentator William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "But I think it's a mistake for people to hang on to a false, quote, 'stability' with an 82-year-old dictator. There are complicated short-term issues, but at the end of the day, being pro- Israel and being pro-freedom go together."

On Wednesday, Netanyahu seemed to shift his stance somewhat, saying that a more open democracy in Egypt should not be seen as a threat to Israel.

In the United States, meanwhile, Republicans stepped up calls for Mubarak to step down, with Sen. John McCain of Arizona becoming the latest to demand his immediate departure. "Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down & relinquish power," McCain said on Twitter.

Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who is now exploring a 2012 presidential bid, accused President Obama of considering the Egypt crisis a "hassle" and called the administration's actions "clueless." But GOP leaders in Congress continued to stand by the president, saying the country should speak with one voice on foreign policy.

Obama did not make any public remarks on Egypt after his appearance Tuesday night in which he urged Mubarak's swift exit. His chief of staff, William M. Daley, gave Obama credit for helping accelerate the Egyptian desire for change - a potentially risky claim with the outcome still unclear.

"You know, people forget he went to Cairo. Some people two years ago criticized him for being so forward calling for changes. Every U.S. president, President Bush being the last, called aggressively for reforms, but they were generally in some other context. President Obama went to Cairo and did it and challenged," Daley said at a Bloomberg breakfast with reporters.

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