On the face of it, three men run Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
But that is not the whole story. On the regional level, according to exclusive information from DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources, a joint high command makes the real decisions. It is composed of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Egyptian President Fattah El Sisi and Netanyahu.
This troika is in constant communication on the war’s progress and confers on its next steps. Our sources reveal daily conferences, and sometimes more, between King Abdullah and President Sisi over a secure phone line.
King Abdullah and Netanyahu are at pains to be discreet in their communications, given the political and religious sensitivities of their relationship. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, whom King Abdullah recently appointed as the royal family’s special advisor on the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) in Syria in Iraq, secretly maintains direct contacts with Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.
Sisi’s dialogue with Netanyahu is indirect, conducted through a three-man Israeli military-intelligence team: Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen is a frequent visitor to Cairo, while Egyptian Intelligence Director Mohammed Ahmed Fareed al-Tohami keeps an open door to Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, political coordinator of the Israeli Defense Ministry and Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu’s top adviser and confidant.
Hush-hush regional war planning
None of them fully trusts even the most secure phone or internet lines for their hush-hush communications. So, the really important messages and negotiations are relayed through confidential human emissaries. Israel keeps a special plane parked at Cairo’s military airport ready to lift off whenever top-secret messages between Sisi and Netanyahu need to be delivered by hand. The distance between Cairo and Tel Aviv is covered in less than an hour and a half.
Netanyahu has moved his center of operations for the duration of the war from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem to a fortified compound in a wing of the IDF’s General Command Headquarters.
New regional alliance makes history, in more ways than one
It is the first time in modern Middle East history that an Israeli war against a Muslim-Arab enemy has been fought in association with two Arab states. Even more remarkably, the backers of Israel’s Gaza campaign are the Arab world’s wealthiest and largest states – Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
In the last week of June, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that this troika hammered out broad guidelines for their nascent partnership in the Gaza operation ready for its launch on July 8:
1. Israel and the IDF will fight to smash Hamas’ military might and downgrade its political influence.
2. The military operation will come to a close only when all its objectives are achieved.
3. The three leaders will not permit any outside party, including the US, to interfere in their direction of the war.
4. The oil-rich Saudi kingdom will cover a portion of the war costs incurred by Israel.
5. When the war is over, Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf emirates, led by the UAE and Kuwait, will pay for repairing the damage caused by the fighting in the Gaza Strip.
6. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel are of the same mind about the absolute necessity to dismantle Hamas’ military strength, including its arsenal of rockets and network of assault bunkers.
7. Once the IDF has destroyed Hamas as a terrorist power, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority will get down to installing a new government and security mechanisms in Gaza City to fill the void left by Hamas’ defeat.
Insulating the IDF from the sharp edge of international pressure
By acceding to this arrangement, Netanyahu ceded a central goal of his Palestinian policy, which is to keep the West Bank and Gaza Strip apart as separate entities. For the sake of his pact with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he consented in principle to the rise of a unified Palestinian entity or state under their tutelage.
His reward has been allies who have gone to great lengths to insulate Israel and the IDF from the usual extreme international pressures for halting their mission in mid-stream.
The five Israeli military tasks forces of half a division each fighting in Gaza, numbering some 75,000 troops, have consequently had the luxury of time to perform their missions. A slow and cautious pace of advance, especially in the early stages of the ground operation, saved the IDF from large-scale losses and casualties. (See a separate item in this issue on military operations).
Riyadh, Cairo and Jerusalem have repulsed diplomatic pressure from many directions to curtail the war without delay. They even crafted a ceasefire proposal coming from Cairo which they knew Hamas would never accept but which Israel could safely endorse and so gain some high moral high ground.
And Europe, always the first to jump on Israel for any military action against an Arab entity, was persuaded by its trade ties with Riyadh to step out of character.
On July 22, 28 European Union foreign ministers strongly condemned ‘’the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and militant groups in the Gaza Strip, directly harming civilians. These are criminal and unjustifiable acts,” they said after a meeting in Brussels, and stressed that “all terrorist groups in Gaza must disarm” and stop using the civilian population of Gaza to “as human shields.’’
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel eye other common enemies
The trio has been working in harness without any major hitches so far.
Abdullah, Sisi and Netanyahu raised a high wall to ward off incoming US demands for a ceasefire that would have saved Hamas from defeat at that moment. US Secretary of State John Kerry ran into this wall when he landed in Cairo on July 21 with a plan for an immediate truce, as did UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the same errand. Above all, they were stalled by the steep decline of America’s Middle East influence was.
The Gaza operation has proved to be a baptism of fire for the Saudi-Egypt-Israel pact and a possible template for cooperation in future endeavors against other common enemies in the region, such as Iran and the surging Islamists.
A pointer in that direction was suggested by Netanyahu in the rider to his comments after meeting the UN Secretary in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, July 22: Responding to Ban’s appeal “It is time to stop fighting and start talking,´ the prime minister said: “Hamas is like the IS, Al Qaeda, Hizballah and Boko Haram extremists. You can’t talk to them!”
His words were addressed equally to Washington and the Obama administration’s bid to save Hamas – a reminder that a solid Saudi-Egyptian-Israeli alliance is ready to stand up and fight the full gamut of Islamist extremists, including the Iran-backed Hizballah.