The encounter between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose relations were widely judged damaged beyond repair by the Iranian nuclear deal blowup, went swimmingly after all. Their first face-to-face meeting after 13 months got off to a well-choreographed, smiling start at the White House, Monday, Nov. 9, ran on smoothly well past the allotted two hours, and ended in an amicable accord on a series of really thorny issues.
The most important was their agreement that it was time to set aside their past differences and get back to fully-restored military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries. In the second half of 2014, when the nuclear deal was still on the negotiating table and in hot dispute between them, their longstanding and close intelligence-sharing mechanisms broke down.
Each party used its capabilities and assets to score points and test the opposite side’s responses.
President Obama instructed US intelligence agencies to reduce – or in some cases to hold back from Israel – the flow of information on US-Iranian understandings regarding military movements in the Middle East. Israel found itself frozen out of updates on US deals with Iran regarding the wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Intelligence-sharing returned to full spate when the summit was set up
Jerusalem retaliated by sitting on is own updates on those war zones, where Israeli intelligence-gathering is more extensive than that of the US and other Western countries.
Exchanges of information on terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State, were restricted as well.
The Americans feared the Israelis would use it to sabotage Iranian military moves, especially in Iraq and Syria, that had been endorsed by Washington in contacts at the highest level of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, (IRGC), whereas Israel was concerned that data transferred to the US would reach the Iranians, and be passed on to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations.
But from mid-October, when the two national advisers, Susan Rice and Yossi Cohen, went into high gear on arrangements for the Obama-Netanyahu summit, bilateral relations changed course for the better in both the political and intelligence spheres.
US intelligence agencies once again opened up to Israel on Iran, while Israel reciprocated with a flow of clandestine data on Russian and Iranian military steps in the Middle East, and the movements of jihadist groups in the region, notably ISIS.
The Obama administration was further encouraged to go back to its active intelligence ties with Israel by a setback that we reported in previous issues of DEBKA Weekly, namely that Tehran chose Moscow as its leading military and intelligence partner, especially in Syria, in preference to Washington.
First Israeli tip-off to Washington of “something big” brewing in Sinai
Renewed US-Israeli cooperation soon yielded first fruit for Washington in an Israeli tip-off that “something big” was in the offing in Egyptian Sinai.
Israeli intelligence knew it was to be a major terrorist attack but had no further details, especially about the target, which might have been Israel itself. Jerusalem shared this information also with Cairo and London, but not with Moscow.
Then, shortly after the Russian airliner was downed by an explosion on Oct. 31, Israel intelligence followed up with recordings for Washington of communications in which leaders of Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, the Sinai-based terrorist organization which pledged allegiance to ISIS, boasted about the downing of the airliner and was congratulated.
Although the attack was not prevented, and all 224 passengers and crew aboard the Metrojet flight were lost, the exchange of information marked the onset of an intelligence rapprochement between the US and Israel.
Another contributing factor was unexpected, reaching the Obama-Netanyahu meeting just hours before it began: A Jordanian police captain Anwar Abu Zeid shot up a group of American military instructors at the King Abdullah Training Center outside Amman, killing five people – 2 Americans, one South African and two Jordanians.
Ironically, the American instructors had been training Palestinian security forces.
The Iranian obstacle to US-Israeli intel collaboration is set aside
This attack exposed a large hole in US-Jordanian-Israeli intelligence collaboration. ISIS was enabled to prove it could not only infiltrate the Egyptian Sharm el-Sheikh’s international airport, but also reach deep inside a Jordanian-American military facility of the highest importance without warning.
This episode illustrated for Obama and Netanyahu more vividly than ever the urgency of resuming their bilateral cooperation in full, lest the ISIS threat to both their countries swung out of control.
Their first priority was to get rid of the Iranian issue as an obstacle to their collaboration.
Netanyahu sought a presidential pledge to cut short US cooperation with Iranian intelligence and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and instead restore the open give-and-take between their intelligence communities to its traditional level prior to late 2013.
With this deal scripted ahead of their meeting, President Obama was able to state clearly to Netanyahu, as they faced the news media gathered in the Oval Office, that past differences between them on Iran were on a “narrow issue.” He tactfully avoided referring to one of the biggest crises that had ever overtaken their governments’ bilateral ties, and went on to say: "But we don’t have a disagreement on the need to make sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, and we don’t have a disagreement about the importance of us blunting and destabilizing activities in Iran that may be taking place."
Obama puts Hizballah in same terrorist basket as ISIS
This was another Obama U-turn. Now that the Iranian issue was behind them, he was saying, the US and Israel must work together to defeat Tehran’s subversive activities that were destabilizing the region.
For Israel, his next statement was no less critical.
Obama said that he and Netanyahu would confer about “how we can blunt the activities” of ISIS, Hizballah and other groups that “carry out terrorist activities.” The Israeli prime minister took gratified note of the way the US president lumped Hizballah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy and Bashar Assad’s senior war ally, in the same terrorist basket as the Islamic State.
That remark alone was worth his journey to Washington, because it signaled the opening of a new chapter on a new basis in the relationship between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.
Still to be finalized in detail are the understandings Obama and Netanyahu reached on the Syrian question.
Sources who were present at the talks, which went ran on for almost an hour past the two hours originally scheduled, told DEBKA Weekly that Obama asked for an Israeli commitment to provide the US with the same level and quality of intelligence on Russian military operations in Syria as it currently provides on the Islamic State’s activities in that country.
In other words, Israel would unreservedly share with the Americans all the data it obtained on Russian actions in Syria, although, when Netanyahu met Vladrimir Putin in Moscow last month, he indicated that he might be less forthcoming in some circumstances.
Israel obtained US backing for defensive action in Syria
Obama also asked for an assurance that the prime minister would not conclude any deals – economic or security – with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding Israel’s oil fields in the Mediterranean.
Netanyahu, for his part, demanded US assurances that any international agreement regarding the future of Syria and the Assad regime would take into account Israel’s military and strategic interests.
He told Obama that Jerusalem would not ask for American military action against Russian forces in Syria in order to protect Israel’s interests. But Israel did need a free hand to act in its own interests, while secure in the knowledge of Washington’s support.
If Israel goes on the offensive in Syria in the event of Russia, Iran or Hizballah threatening its borders, it will stand in need of America’s political, military and international backing.
Obama accepted this formulation and Netanyahu came away with the American guarantees he sought.
While much preferring a US-Russian-Iranian deal for controlling the quantity and quality of weaponry Tehran is permitted to import into Syria, Israel has no realistic expectation of this happening.
So, after his fruitful conversation with President Obama, Netanyahu felt he has been granted enough leeway to strike out against any attempts by Russian, Iranian or Hizballah forces to seize control of southern Syria, eject rebel forces from the region and move into their positions on the Syrian-Israeli border.
Israel would not give up its policy of smashing Iranian weapons shipments landing in Syria or destined for Hizballah.
The Obama-Netanyahu understandings on Syria faced their first test Wednesday, Nov. 11, by Israeli air strikes near Damascus. (See leading article in this issue.)