The recent escalation in the Gaza Strip made clear to the world what Israelis have lived with for years: the terrible reality of missiles fired by terrorist organizations at civilians, threatening death and injury, sowing fear and disrupting daily life.
Whenever terrorists strike Israel, it is Israelis, in uniform and on the homefront, who are on the front lines. But I am proud of the role that the U.S. played to ensure Israel’s right of self-defense to end the rocket fire, to de-escalate the conflict and to protect Israeli lives. Our recent cooperation is among the best examples in recent memory of the way U.S. support for Israel’s security, along with close coordination between our governments, can work effectively to serve our shared interests.
Throughout the eight days of the conflict, U.S. statements and actions repeatedly underscored just how committed the U.S. is to Israel's security and to its right and ability to defend its people from terrorism. Despite being in the middle of a historic trip to Asia, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton never took their eyes off the Middle East, engaging in constant phone calls and discussions on the matter.
While Clinton urged her counterparts around the world to support our efforts to de-escalate, Obama spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several times. During these calls, Obama received updates on the events on the ground, offered advice and counsel, and assured Netanyahu of U.S. backing for Israel's right to defend itself in the face of thousands of rockets fired at its people from the Gaza Strip. Beyond the conversations, from the first moment of Operation Pillar of Defense, Obama, Clinton and Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice made strong and clear public statements that expressed unequivocal support for Israel’s right of self-defense. These statements played a critical role in influencing international opinion, securing the support of other countries and keeping the focus where it needed to be: the need for the rocket fire from Gaza to stop.
At the same time, intimate coordination between our two governments was required to develop, with the help of Egypt, the elements of a successful cease-fire. The open lines of communication — sometimes at very odd times of the day and night across international time zones, from Washington to Jerusalem to Bangkok — helped produce a cease-fire agreement to end the rocket fire by Hamas and other factions in Gaza, but in a way which ensured Israeli, as well as U.S., security and diplomatic interests. This coordination culminated in Clinton's visit to Israel to prepare for her trip to Cairo, which ultimately resulted in a cease-fire agreement.
This commitment from the Obama administration, and from Obama himself, is not new. In 2008, when then Senator Obama visited southern Israel, he saw the fear and the trauma in the eyes of the residents of Sderot. He saw this and declared that to defend his daughters from rocket fire, he would do exactly what Israel was doing. He also recognized America’s obligation to do all it could to ensure the lives of children he met would soon return to normal, and that they should be able to live their daily lives without fear of rockets and mortars being fired at their schools, homes, playgrounds and buses.
Indeed, the words he spoke on that visit, once he took office, materialized into deeds and resulted in nearly $300 million in American assistance to accelerate the development and deployment of the Iron Dome missile defense system. The success of Iron Dome cannot be put in words. It not only saved many lives and prevented untold injuries and property damage, but also allowed Israel’s leaders the diplomatic and military flexibility to arrive at an outcome that ensures the security of its population.
When I ask myself what, from a U.S. perspective, made it possible for the cease-fire to be achieved, I think of three main factors. First was our strong and unequivocal support for Israel's right to self-defense. This message is repeated constantly at all levels, publicly and privately, and there is no doubt as to its validity. Second was the very close coordination between Israel and the U.S. on the details of the cease-fire and the diplomatic steps required to bring it about. Third was direct American and Israeli engagement with Egypt on multiple levels, including several conversations between Obama and President Mohammed Morsi throughout that week, as well as trips by Israeli delegations to Cairo. This engagement ensured that Egypt could play a role in influencing Hamas to agree to the cease-fire terms. Egypt’s key role in mediating with the Palestinian factions and the vital position it holds in the region were very evident during these events. Continued direct American and Israeli engagement with Egypt will be necessary to achieve a more durable stability in Gaza, and address many other regional challenges.
The status quo after the cease-fire is by no means a permanent solution. There is a need on all sides to step up efforts to stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza to replace those that were destroyed or used, to prevent a repeat of violence. All sides must act consistently with the goal of resuming direct negotiations to achieve a two-state solution, which will be necessary for durable stability, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike. As we work together, the U.S. will continue to strengthen U.S.-Israel coordination and demonstrate unwavering U.S. support for Israel’s security.
Dan Shapiro is the U.S. ambassador to Israel.