Egypt has been central to providing an Arab cover for the US-led military expedition to the Persian Gulf, in addition to Saudi Arabia. As of December 1990, Egypt’s 15-20,000 troops constituted the third largest force confronting Iraq, after the United States and Saudi Arabia itself. Joint military exercises during the 1980s prepared the way for this US-Egyptian military cooperation, whose value is more symbolic than substantial. In The United States and Egypt: An Essay on Policy for the 1990s (Brookings, 1990), William Quandt surveys the development of the US-Egyptian relationship since the early 1970s, examines the strains it may experience in the 1990s and offers some recommendations to policymakers responsible for managing them.

Quandt provides a concise and refreshingly realistic overview of Egypt’s economic crisis, arguing that economic issues will become increasingly important and problematic in the coming decade. No one can doubt that Egypt’s readiness to commit troops to Saudi Arabia is to a significant extent motivated by its dependence on the $2.3 billion a year in military and economic assistance it receives from the United States. A large proportion of this aid, however, has been in the form of loans. Egypt now owes the US $13.6 billion, out of a total foreign debt of over $50 billion. Its annual debt service is currently about $7 billion. In recent years Egypt has been unable to defray its US debt on schedule, jeopardizing the continued flow of US aid. The US-Egyptian relationship has also been strained by Egypt’s return to an active diplomatic role in the Arab world and by the failure to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In surveying these issues, Quandt remains within the boundaries of the prevailing political consensus. Thus, he refrains from stating clearly that Israeli obstruction, with considerable US compliance, has been responsible for the failure to achieve a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and he acquiesces in terming US diplomatic efforts since Camp David “the peace process.”

The design of this essay as a policy recommendation exposes some of the political dynamics of the foreign policymaking process. Quandt’s key proposal is to restructure the foreign aid package to Egypt and cancel or radically reduce its military debt. His arguments assume that it might be difficult for a president to persuade Congress to adopt such measures. But the Persian Gulf crisis allowed President Bush to propose canceling Egypt’s entire $7 billion military debt. The need to preserve the anti-Iraq alliance rendered Quandt’s careful calculations and reasoning obsolete, demonstrating again that foreign aid is not about economic development but about buying potential military allies and selling American products abroad.

Israel’s decisive victory over the Arab states in 1967 initiated a political and social transformation that broke the hegemony of labor Zionism and polarized its political culture. Expansionist proponents of a greater Israel, often motivated by orthodox Jewish religio-national sentiment, redefined the public ethos of the state, culminating in the electoral victory of Menachem Begin’s Likud in 1977. It is less widely appreciated that considerable energy on the opposite end of the political spectrum was also unleashed among those who recoiled from the prospect of a triumphalist Israel indefinitely ruling over an unwilling Palestinian Arab population. During the decade of the Likud’s ascendancy an Israeli new left emerged, sharing many political and social characteristics with its European and North American counterparts.

New immigrants from the United States, France and several Latin American countries were an important component of the new left, forming a conduit for political ideas and social forms that arrived in Israel several years after they appeared elsewhere. Many Israelis, including some among traditional left and peace movements, dismissed the anarchic politics and provocative social mores of the new left as an inappropriate import from abroad that got in the way of “real” politics. The prominence of recent immigrants among new left activists made the movement vulnerable to this charge because, despite the tenets of Zionist ideology, new immigrants are not readily accepted by veteran Jewish Israelis.

The most difficult component of the new left for Israel to accept was feminism, all the more so lesbian feminism. In Exile in the Promised Land: A Memoir (Firebrand, 1990), Marcia Freedman, an American who emigrated to Israel in 1967, tells the story of her development as a feminist, the emergence of the women’s movement, her term in the Knesset from 1973 to 1977 as a member of the Citizens’ Rights Movement, her acrimonious relations with CRM leader Shulamit Aloni, her participation in failed efforts of the peace movement to establish a unified electoral bloc, her coming out as a lesbian and, ultimately, her return to the United States in 1981. As a socialist and an early advocate of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Freedman was forced to split with the CRM during her Knesset term.

Appropriately for a book whose theme is the growth of feminist consciousness, the tortured course of the Israeli new left during the 1970s is framed by Freedman’s personal and political development, interwoven with an account of the emergence of an organized feminist movement, especially its Haifa branch. This unique perspective is stamped by a very American personal and political style. Consequently, Exile in the Promised Land does not offer a comprehensive or synthetic analysis, nor is it meant to. It contains some factual errors, especially in the sections dealing with Palestinians, that reflect a typical middle-class Ashkenazi distance from things Arab. Nonetheless, Marcia Freedman’s story of why it became impossible for her to live in Israel despite her Zionist convictions affirms the existence of a movement of resistance to Israeli national chauvinism while exposing the weaknesses of that movement, including the extent to which sectors of the Israeli opposition share the same political style and macho culture as the rest of Israeli society.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Editor’s Bookshelf," Middle East Report 168 (January/February 1991).
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