In the second week of the Gaza conflict, the US, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Jordan formed a coalition for degrading Hamas politically, economically and militarily (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 379 reported on Jan. 9).
In the third week of the war, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports, Barack Obama's incoming administration, without waiting for its inauguration, stepped in to overturn this bloc in order to rescue the Palestinian terrorist organization from certain defeat and keep its regime intact in Gaza City.
His purpose in directly intervening in the Israel-Hamas conflict was to let Iran know that its Middle East protegees would be allowed to survive provided the Islamic regime in Tehran agreed to play ball with the new masters in Washington.
According to our Washington sources, the puppet master leading this gambit, which is still in play, is defense secretary Robert Gates, whom the president-elect held over from the Bush administration.
Gates moved fast before the White House keys were handed over.
He thus emerged as a prime mover in the Obama administration's foreign policy team, at least the equal of secretary of state Hillary Clinton and national security adviser, Retired Marine Corps Commandant James Jones.
A working arrangement between Gates and Clinton was already in place as suggested by the frequency with which she quoted the defense secretary during her hearing before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Jan. 13. She was confirmed two days later.
Clinton seeks to open “adversaries'” doors
Clinton explained her intention of expanding the State Department's role in national security and increasing the government's reliance on nonmilitary action in response to international crises. That objective is shared by Gates, she said.
(In the past, he has urged the Pentagon to take a stronger hand in the conduct of diplomacy, and voiced concern that previous administrations let the US military be drawn into too many aspects of foreign affairs.
In a speech he gave in July, Gates defined Pentagon authority more broadly and more aggressively than any of his predecessors. Speaking out against the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, he advocated more civilian-military partnerships in “stability operations” in failed states before they become incubators of radical Islam.
He sees the Pentagon in the lead of this nonmilitary approach.)
Is Gates proposing to step over the line onto state department turf?
Clinton appeared to welcome his approach.
Signaling that the Obama administration would move quickly to engage Iran and Syria directly, Clinton promised her “new diplomacy” would give America “more partners and fewer adversaries.”
So far, Gates and Clinton appear to be pulling in the same direction, both advocating swift direct engagement with Iran and Syria. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources describe how this week they shared between them the task of mobilizing the Gaza crisis to open those “adversaries'” doors.
After dropping the Coalition of Six set up by George W. Bush, the Obama team entrusted three partners with shaping an expeditious end to the Gaza conflict: Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, his heir apparent Gemal (Jimmy) Mubarak and the Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak.
Ross sets up backdoor channel to Tehran
Gates established a line of communication to the Egyptian president through his son.
Clinton set up a link to the Israeli defense minister.
Barak has been close friends with the Clintons since he and President Bill Clinton joined in a failed effort to persuade Yasser Arafat to sign peace in 2000.
Veteran Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross, designated ambassador-at-large on Iran, was assigned the mission of carrying Obama's policy positions to Tehran, Damascus and Hamas.
Again, without waiting for the White House transition to take place, Ross was put to work to build lines of communication to the top echelons of the Tehran regime through the Speaker of the Majlis, Ali Larijani, and senior nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
Obama's external policy live wires had three immediate objectives:
1. To hold back an Israeli advance into Gaza City and prevent its army from capturing or killing Hamas' top political and military leaders – in other words, to rescue Hamas from defeat and eclipse.
They were too late to save Hamas interior minister, Siad Sayam, who was killed when the Israeli Air Force dropped a bomb on his hideout Thursday, Jan. 15. (see also HOT POINTS below)
2. To arrange for a Gaza ceasefire to take effect before Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20;
3. To exclude from the action parties deemed by the incoming US administration superfluous to a Gaza crisis solution: Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, the Qatari ruler Sheikh al Thani and Turkish prime minister Tayyep Recip Erdogan.
Olmert bucks at his irrelevance
Furious at being left out, Olmert issued a scathing attack – unprecedented in Israel-US special relations -on outgoing secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's performance at the UN Security Council; through a leak from his office, he also accused his defense minister of administering “a shot in the arm to Hamas.”
Frustrated at being prevented from letting the army finish Hamas off, the Israeli prime minister chose this indirect method of venting his displeasure to Washington. He picked on Rice because she was clearly cooperating with the newcomers on the Gaza crisis.
Having weeded out the potential opponents, Gates and Clinton entrusted Gemal Mubarak and Ehud Barak with working on the terms of a ceasefire with Hamas.
Through his high-powered Iranian contacts, Ross had meanwhile sidelined the battered Hamas-Gaza leadership and the fire eating Hamas-Damascus faction, while Hizballah was relegated to the bench.
Nevertheless, Thursday, January 8, rockets positioned by Hizballah's agents in South Lebanon were launched against the northern Israeli town of Nahariya. Six days later, a second rocket salvo hit another Galilee town, Kiryat Shemona.
Hizballah told not open a second front
Iranian officials hurried to explain to Ross that Hizballah had no choice but to show the Arab world that it had not abandoned its Hamas friends to the mercy of Israeli bombardments, but had made sure no one was hurt. They assured him that Hizballah would not open a major second front against Israel from the north.
Obama's emissary passed Tehran's message on to Barak, who agreed to confine Israel's reprisal to artillery fire on empty ground, provided Hizballah kept its attacks within tight limits.
DEBKA-net-Weekly's counter-terror sources read a message from the Obama administration to a quite different quarter between the lines of this exchange: It implies that the prevention of Hamas's oblivion as a political and military force is not a one-off, but might in future be applied equally to the Taliban, provided it accepts a ceasefire in Afghanistan and agrees to open direct talks with the US.
The substance of the US-Egyptian-Israel ceasefire proposal and its chances of working are examined in a separate article in this issue.