Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was conspicuous by his silence when conflicting announcements of a fresh five-day ceasefire war issued from Cairo after midnight, Wednesday, Aug 13.
And not just because the “truce” was punctuated by renewed Hamas rocket fire.
The Gaza war occasioned a singular development in Mid East political and military history: For the first time, an Arab leader – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi – put the squeeze on reluctant Israeli politicians – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon – to apply the Israeli Defense Forces as Egypt’s instrument for crushing an Arab Muslim target.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, this anomaly came out of the uniquely intense ties Sisi and Netanyahu had established, often communing once or twice a day over the secure lines installed by their intelligence agencies.
Late last week, Sisi informed Netanyahu that the Cairo talks for making the latest three-day ceasefire permanent were little more than a formality. Even if further truces were declared under international pressure, the operation for blowing Hamas off the planet must go ahead. Part of the confusion Thursday over the latest truce announcement arose from the Israeli prime minister’s dilemmas over this demand.
Netanyahu feels too pushed by Sisi
After a month of fighting, Netanyahu has caught on to the essential philosophy guiding the former general who now rules Egypt: It is that fundamentalist Islamic foes can only be subdued by military force, and this class of enemy includes the Muslim Brotherhood and its offspring and collaborator, Hamas.
He also read in Sisi’s language an injunction: The IDF has not gone far enough toward hammering Hamas. Therefore, if Netanyahu wants meaningful negotiations with the Hamas rulers of Gaza to end in peace and security for southern Israel, it is up to him to take his military operation all the way and beat Hamas’s political and military leaders into a condition close to capitulation. Only when Hamas is on its knees, will Sisi step in to bring the diplomatic track to success.
The Egyptian ruler did not spell this out in so many words, but our sources report that the prime minister got the message loud and clear. He saw he had reached a crossroads with three options:
1. Go back to fighting Hamas, except that now air strikes would no longer suffice and he would have to send ground troops back into the Gaza Strip.
2. Do nothing, and hope for the best, i.e., that if IDF held its fire, Hamas would reciprocate in kind. But then, Israel would not have served Sisi’s ambition to pummel Hamas into submission and, moreover, southern Israel would be left on tenterhooks about its security.
3. Go for Hamas all out with guns blazing, until the fundamentalists see the light and knuckle under in at least a partial surrender.
A pact for keeping Obama at arm’s length
None of these three options appeals to Netanyahu. On the one hand, he was not keen on doing business with Hamas, while, on the other, he had no wish to be a cat’s paw in the Egyptian president’s game plans.
At the same time, his main, albeit veiled, purpose in forming an alliance with Sisi was to keep the Obama at arm’s length from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his evolving ties in the Arab world at large.
While maintaining Israel’s close political, economic military and intelligence relationship with Washington as before – and putting a good face on their traditional friendship – the Israeli prime minister has been intent on distancing the Obama administration from his key political and military decision processes.
This policy slotted neatly into the Egyptian ruler’s plans for handling the US administration with care and deference, while at the same time keeping US hands out of his government’s policies, interests and future plans.
Sidelining Washington was and is one of the common factors defining the newborn strategic partnership Cairo and Jerusalem have formed along with Saudi Arabia, as DEBKA Weekly 644 first reported on July 25 (“The Regional Dimension: The Gaza War Against Hamas is Managed by a Troika: Abdullah, Sisi and Netanyahu”).
A major bump in US-Israeli friendship
The 66-year old friendship between Israel and the US has had its share of bumps.
In the Suez War of 1956, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion went to war on Egypt with Britain and France behind US President Dwight Eisenhower’s back. And on June 7, 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered a surprise attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad, against the express wishes of US President Ronald Reagan.
But this time, Washington and Jerusalem have veered further apart than ever before, although the extent of this rift was not common knowledge in either country.
Netanyahu was well aware that in choosing Abdullah and Sisi over Obama, he’d have to make some allowances for their ideology. It was a bargain he was willing to gamble on for the sake of getting out from under President Barack Obama’s failed steps in the region and the fallout from his outreach to Tehran (see a separate item in this issue on US involvement in Iraq).
Administration officials admitted to the fraying relations with the Israeli leader Thursday by denigrating the performance of Netanyahu and his national security team in the Gaza conflict as “both reckless and untrustworthy.”
He knew there would be a price to pay – and not just in Washington – for throwing in his lot with new Arab partners. But, say DEBKA Weekly’s Jerusalem sources, he didn’t bargain on being pushed into a corner and dictated to by Abdullah and Sisi on the scale and objectives of IDF operations. This privilege had only ever been afforded Washington.
Netanyahu ducks and weaves to avoid all-out ground offensive
From the moment he launched the IDF’s Operation Defensive Edge on July 7 to staunch the Hamas rocket blitz and dismantle its tunnels, the Israeli prime minister has been groping for a way out of this corner. He tried to fix on a tactic of restraint for meting out stiff, deterrent punishment to the rocket throwers, while avoiding a deep troop incursion into the heart of the Gaza Strip for eradicating the Palestinian group – at Sisi’s behest.
On the other hand, he has never clarified whether or not his objective of security for the Israeli population entails Hamas’ eclipse, or some kind of accommodation accompanied by demilitarization, that would leave them in power.
Sisi sought to exploit this haziness to push Israel all the way. When Netanyahu dug in his heels, the Egyptian and Saudi rulers pushed back by steering the Cairo negotiating track into a dead end. This was achieved Monday, Aug. 11, by Egyptian Intelligence Chief Gen. Mohamed Farid El Tohamy presenting both sides in Cairo with working papers that neither side could possibly accept.
By Tuesday night, the prime minister found himself heading into a narrow corridor, which he had hoped to avoid: a new flare-up of Gaza hostilities, to end which the IDF would have no option but to drive deeper than ever before into the Gaza Strip in order to reach Hamas’ centers of power.
By Thursday morning, he appeared to have melted away into the confusion to dodge around this dilemma and avoid the uncertainties of a novel kind of truce laced with rocket fire. His options have dwindled to a major war offensive against Hamas, or living with a war of attrition.