(BEN SMITH-Politico).The politics of the Middle East often hinge on unexpected twists and turns of history - and one of those moments may have come Friday night, when the tumultuous and sometimes frosty relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have found a friendlier tone in the midst of a near-catastrophe.
Friday nights usually offer a rare respite for the intense post of U.S. Ambassador to Israel, but hours after sunset last Friday, Ambassador Dan Shapiro’s email inbox suddenly began lighting up. An angry crowd outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo had begun to breach its outer walls, prompting fears that, even with Egyptian security forces standing by, the mob might overrun the embassy.
Shapiro took a call from the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s situation room, where Netanyahu and other top officials were gathered, tensely watching live video feeds from the embassy. Officials said the Israelis had been calling their Egyptian counterparts for hours, but had been unable to reach the newly transformed nation’s military leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Senior State Department officials had spoken to Egyptian officials and been assured a rescue was on the way – but “there was a gap between the sense of urgency and the response time,” Netanyahu aide Ron Dermer told POLITICO. The Israeli leaders, watching the live video, narrated the frightening scene to Shapiro.
“What I was hearing from the Foreign Ministry was so alarming that I basically said, ‘We’ve got to raise this to the top level - we need a call to Tantawi now,’ ” he said.
Shapiro helped jostle the U.S. government into an all-hands-on-deck response that officials in both countries credit with saving the lives of six Israeli guards trapped in an embassy safe room.
But the incident also proved something of a reality check for in the U.S.-Israel alliance, and a punctuation mark in the tense personal relationship Obama and Netanyahu, who placed his own call to Obama at 12:45 a.m. in Israel. The U.S. alliance with Israel was, in a moment of crisis, both reflexive and effective. Netanyahu’s thanks after the incident was unstinting. And the incident seemed to bind the countries closer together amid a brewing crisis in New York, as Palestinian leaders press the United Nations to grant them formal statehood.
“Arab spring and its breathlessness has turned into Arab winter and sober assessment. Israel’s fears become America’s and the desire and ability to pressure Bibi goes way down,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.
There was less thought of those broader strategic consequences Friday night and Saturday morning in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Washington, however, as Shapiro and other administration officials rang the alarm bells.
“They were within one door of getting at the guys who were inside. We were potentially within minutes of a tragedy,” Shapiro said. “There would have been bloodshed.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had already tried to reach Tantawi to avoid the nightmare of a last stand between the well-armed Israelis and the mob, officials said. But as midnight passed in Jerusalem and Cairo, Obama – amid the sale of his jobs plan and briefings on the threat of a Sept. 11 anniversary terror attack — became personally involved as well, launching a new round of calls to senior Egytian leaders. After midnight, he spoke to Netanyahu to “express his great concern” about the situation, and to make public the pressure “on the government of Egypt to honor its international obligations to safeguard the security of the Israeli Embassy.”
Panetta finally spoke to Tantawi, reportedly around 1:00 a.m. in Cairo. Egyptian commandos arrived soon after, reportedly dressing the six Israelis in local garb and spiriting them out of the besieged embassy.
“The president’s quick and decisive action says we’re friends and we’ll do what we have to to help each other in crisis moments,” he said. “That’s not a question - that’s automatic. It’s a sign of the fundamental strength of the friendship.”
And while the U.S. Ambassador might be expected to credit the White House, the fulsome Israeli gratitude was unusual. Netanyahu, who infuriated the Americans this summer with a public lecture to Obama, said in an unusual Saturday morning address that “I want to use this opportunity to thank U.S. President Barack Obama.”
“I requested his assistance at a decisive — I would even say fateful — moment. He said he would do everything possible, and this is what he did, He activated all of the United States’ means and influence — which are certainly considerable. I believe we owe him a special debt of gratitude. This testifies to the powerful alliance between Israel and the United States. This alliance is especially vital in these days, in which we can witness fierce storms and upheavals in the Middle East.”
The Israeli and American Jewish press, often hostile to Obama, chimed in. The Orthodox newspaper Hamodia described him, with high religious praise, as a divine “instrument of salvation.
“In this test of standing by one’s allies in a matter of life and death, Barack Obama came through,” it wrote.
And Dermer says the U.S.-Israel relationship is at a high point.
“We’ve enjoyed a period over the last four months of very close coordination with the administration, probably the best coordination that we’ve had over the last two-and-a-half years over the range of issues,I think that we’re definitely in a good place, with the U.S. administration and us seeing a lot of things eye to eye.”