Behind the Scenes of Pillar of Defense

During Gaza Operation, Netanyahu and Obama Finally Learned to Work Together

The U.S. attitude during the Gaza operation was perhaps the clearest showcase of American support for Israel since Obama took office four years ago.

On Wednesday, November 14, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. A few days earlier in Washington, he had participated in security-diplomatic discussions between senior officials of the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, and an Israeli delegation headed by National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror.

As he was making his way through passport control, Shapiro got a phone call. “The head of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Jabari, was assassinated a few minutes ago by the Israel Air Force,” said the voice on the other end. During the Washington talks, Amidror had stressed that Israel planned to retaliate for the Gaza rocket fire on the south, but he never mentioned anything about eliminating Jabari.

The American ambassador immediately understood that he wasn’t going to be getting too much sleep in the coming days. Within hours he was arranging the first phone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During the ensuing eight days, the two leaders would speak three more times.

A senior administration official said that during that first phone call on November 14, Netanyahu updated Obama on the objective of the Gaza operation and the Israel Defense Forces’ plans. Netanyahu told Obama that if the rocket fire didn’t stop, Israel would launch a ground operation. According to the U.S. official, Obama made it clear even then to Netanyahu that he supports Israel’s right to defend itself and agrees that Hamas must stop its rocket fire first.

“There was no pressure on Israel not to launch a ground operation,” the senior American official said. “In all their discussions, the president and prime minister agreed that it was better to find a diplomatic solution that would preclude a ground operation, because the price [of the latter] was liable to be high. They approached the issue from the same point of view."

“At the same time, we knew that this [a ground operation] was an Israeli option. We knew that Israel had called up reserves and it was possible it would use them,” he said.

The U.S. attitude during the Gaza operation was perhaps the clearest showcase of American support for Israel since Obama took office four years ago. It was also a showcase of cooperation between Obama and Netanyahu after a long period of tension and unstable personal relations between the two. After a long time during which Obama had been depicted by his political rivals at home, and at times by Netanyahu confidants, as pro-Palestinian and as having “thrown Israel under the bus,” the president proved that his support for Israel was unstinting.

Parallel to his conversations with Netanyahu, Obama was pressuring Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, whom he had identified as the key to resolving the crisis. During the eight days of the Gaza operation, Obama and Morsi spoke at least six times. During each conversation, the same message was conveyed – Hamas is responsible for the escalation, so get them to stop the fire.

According to the senior U.S. official, America’s backing and diplomatic support extended to the United Nations, where U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice blocked initiatives by Russia and other countries to call for a cease-fire and for the Gaza operation to be stopped. Rice made it clear to the UN Security Council that the United States supported the Israeli operation, thus paving the way for other Western nations to do the same.

On November 17, the fourth day of the operation, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarked on a diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia. Between diplomatic meetings, Clinton spent most of her time speaking to her counterparts in Egypt, Turkey, France and Qatar in an effort to increase the pressure on Hamas to stop the rocket fire.

On the night of Sunday, November 18, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman convened to discuss the contacts being made regarding a cease-fire, which had started a few hours earlier in Cairo. Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, who had returned from Cairo after talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Raafat Shehata and Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, briefed the three on the Egyptian proposals.

The discussion broke up at about 4 A.M. Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman were not satisfied with what they had heard. They felt that Egypt was trying to provide Hamas with achievements. One of Netanyahu’s aides then called Shapiro and asked him to come to Defense Ministry headquarters at the Kirya.

“It was the first time that the Israelis briefed us about the content of the talks with Egypt, and they gave us a copy of the draft cease-fire agreement,” the senior American official said. “Their request was that we intervene and put more pressure on Egypt.”

Shapiro hurried back to the embassy and passed on the details to Obama, Clinton and their senior aides, who were in Cambodia at the time. A few hours afterward, Obama called Netanyahu and discussed the Egyptian draft with him. Obama proposed sending Clinton to the region to help in the negotiations. That same day, Obama also spoke three times with Morsi, stressing the need for a more balanced draft.

On November 20 Clinton arrived in Israel and just before midnight went into a meeting with Netanyahu, Lieberman and Barak. The Egyptian draft was the focus of the meeting, which ended inconclusively. In the morning, however, Netanyahu’s aides called Clinton’s staff and asked for another meeting before she flew to Egypt.

According to the American official, during this second meeting, Netanyahu told Clinton to which points of the draft he objected, and to which he would agree. Netanyahu’s message was: First stop the rocket fire, and he would agree to discuss any issues Hamas would raise.

Clinton set off for Ben-Gurion Airport, but a few minutes before take-off she learned about the bus bombing in Tel Aviv. One of Clinton’s aides called the prime minister’s bureau to ask if what Netanyahu had told her earlier was still valid.

“Nothing has changed,” Netanyahu’s people said. “Continue as we said.”

Clinton arrived in Cairo, and during a meeting with Morsi stressed that the United States supported the Israeli cease-fire demands. After a few hours of discussions and changes to the Egyptian cease-fire document, an agreement was reached. A corrected memorandum of understandings was faxed to Jerusalem, and Clinton called Netanyahu to inform him that an agreement had been reached. Clinton also called Obama to update him, and recommended that he immediately call Netanyahu and Morsi, which he did shortly afterward.

The senior American officials cited three major conclusions to be drawn from Operation Pillar of Defense. The first is that America’s consistent support for Israel’s right to defend itself contributed in the end to achieving the cease-fire.
“We repeated this every day, in every forum, and no one could have any doubt about our position,” the official said. “It was clear that Israel and the United States were on the same page and this influenced the other players in the international community.”

The second conclusion relates to the American-Israeli cooperation in formulating the cease-fire understandings. According to the U.S. officials, although there was direct contact between Israel and Egypt, without the prior coordination between Clinton and the Israeli troika – Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman – it would not have been possible to reach final understandings during Clinton’s trip to Cairo.

The third conclusion involves relations between the United States and Egypt.

“We understood from the start that only the Egyptians could influence Hamas and the other factions to agree to things they didn’t want in the beginning,” the official said. “Egypt delivered the goods.”

Now the U.S. administration hopes to utilize these three lessons to strengthen the ties between Israel and Egypt and to deal with the primary problem – the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

According to the U.S. official, the Egyptians understand the problem and have promised the United States to deal with it.

“We will work with Israel and Egypt to prevent the smuggling,” the official said. “We know that this is a critical issue for preserving stability here, especially given the fact that Iran will not stop trying to transfer weapons to Gaza. We all now understand that we must deal with the smuggling much more effectively than we have up till now.”