Gulf states’ warm, secret embrace of Israel exposed

Despite bumps in the road, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has nurtured close ties with Israel. 

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court Wikipedia

The Jerusalem Post published two letters in recent weeks directly addressing the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The first, published in mid-January, is penned by Meidan Bar, chair of the Israeli Airline Pilots Association.

Bar, who was a pilot in the Israeli air force, invited Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to visit Israel and send a Saudi delegation to an Israeli aviation conference in May.

The second, written by Joel Rosenberg, a Christian Zionist and US-Israeli dual citizen, invites Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to visit Israel.

In November, Rosenberg led a delegation of Christian evangelicals and pro-Israel American figures to Riyadh to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Whether Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed bin Zayed will take up Rosenberg’s invitation is unclear, but it would not be the first time the crown prince would speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rift in covert relations

According to a report by Barak Ravid for Israel’s Channel 10, the two leaders spoke by phone several times between 2015 and 2016, following years of covert relations between the two countries.

This includes intelligence collaboration against Iran, arms sales and technology exchanges.

Ravid traces the history of the collaboration back a decade, when the failure of a secret arms deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates led to a two-year rift in covert relations.

In February 2009, Israel lobby stalwart and former US “peace process” diplomat Dennis Ross, UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba and Israeli ambassador Sallai Meridor met in secret at a Washington hotel, Ravid reported.

Al Otaiba and Meridor wanted to convey their countries’ mutual concern to Ross over the Obama administration’s intention to open dialogue with Iran.

“There was concern, anxiety, and common interests between Israel and the Arab countries regarding Iran,” Meridor told Ravid.

In July that year, two senior Obama administration officials flew to Abu Dhabi to meet bin Zayed, who said he shared Israel’s outlook about Iran.

“I agree with Israeli intelligence about the progress of the Iranian nuclear program. The Israelis are going to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities sooner than you think. Probably this year. The Iranians will react with rocket fire first of all against us,” bin Zayed said, according to a telegram at the time.

The same year, Meir Dagan, the late army general and head of the Mossad under several prime ministers, proposed to newly appointed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that an Israeli company sell drones to the UAE in exchange for collaboration on Iran.

“The Mossad serves as the foreign ministry of Israel in relation to all those countries with which there are no diplomatic relations,” Dov Weisglass, a former senior advisor to the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told Ravid.

It is unclear whether Netanyahu gave the green light before or after the deal was finalized with the Israeli company. Either way, the UAE paid tens of millions of dollars to the company before the Israeli defense ministry learned of the deal, which it vehemently opposed, and canceled.

No more assassinations

Bin Zayed “felt personally betrayed, and the first stage was to overcome the personal side and the insult,” President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, told Ravid.

In January 2010, Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed in a hotel room in Dubai, and his slaying was blamed on Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad.

The cancellation of the arms sale, along with the Israeli assassination carried out on Emirati soil, created a rift between the two countries that lasted from 2010 until 2012, according to Ravid.

The conflict was only resolved when Israel agreed never to conduct assassinations in the UAE, and the Gulf state was compensated by the weapons company and the Israeli government for its down payment.

“The United Arab Emirates wanted an Israeli admission, at least in a secret channel, of responsibility for this assassination, and in the end they made do with something less,” Shapiro told Ravid.

Israel gave an undertaking “that such things would not happen again on United Arab Emirates soil,” adding that it “would be willing to explore ways to increase security dialogue with the UAE and exchange of intelligence in ways that would benefit the UAE,” Shapiro said.

Consistent dialogue

Shapiro said dialogue between the two countries resumed, as did collaboration on intelligence and technology, but he provided no specifics.

Meanwhile in Washington, the relationship between Al Otaiba and Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer was growing so strong over their mutual hostility towards Iran that the latter invited Al Otaiba to attend Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress attacking the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, but the Emirati ambassador “politely declined,” according to Ravid.

In 2015, the UAE allowed Israel to open an office at the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi.

In addition to the phone calls between Netanyahu and Emirati Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed in 2015 and 2016, Shapiro also confirms that “representatives of the prime minister of Israel and representatives of the crown prince of the Emirates spoke regularly, sometimes face to face and sometimes on the phone.”

Israel and the UAE have no formal diplomatic relations. But the failed 2009 drone deal was one of numerous secret contacts between Emirati and Israeli officials that traces back to the 1990s, with a mutual enmity towards Iran at the core of this relationship.

Ravid describes “an alliance that for the last 20 years has included extensive security, political and economic ties between the two countries, most of them secret. The threat from Tehran strengthened the alliance built on an ancient principle of war: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In October, Israel’s sports and culture minister Miri Regev visited the Emirates along with her country’s judo team, part of a blitz of Israeli normalization with Arab states in the region.

Regev cried with emotion as the Israeli national anthem was played in Abu Dhabi.

The Israeli politician also paid a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi – the largest in the United Arab Emirates – boasting that it was the first time an Israeli government minister had visited the shrine.

Saudi Prince to visit Israel?

That same month, Netanyahu visited Oman in the most visible sign of Israel’s normalization of ties with Arab states with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

That relationship continues to develop.

Oman’s foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah secretly met with Netanyahu this week, Israeli publication Walla reported on Wednesday.

Walla published a video showing Oman’s foreign minister arriving through the parking lot entrance of a Warsaw hotel for a secret meeting with Netanyahu, who was in the Polish capital for a conference hosted by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“During the Warsaw conference, Netanyahu is expected to meet with Arab foreign ministers and senior officials from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco and take pictures with them,” Walla claimed.

“The courageous decision of [Oman’s ruler] Sultan Qaboos to invite me to Oman is changing the world, it’s pointing the way for many others to do the same,” Netanyahu told Oman’s foreign minister in a video of their meeting.

“People have suffered a lot because they are stuck in the past. Now we say, this is a new era for the future,” the Omani minister responded.

In an unprecedented interview with Israeli television shortly after the Warsaw meeting, Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, a senior royal and former intelligence chief, spoke to Barak Ravid.

Turki told Ravid that Netanyahu is “deceiving” the Israeli public by making it believe that Arab states would move into formal diplomatic relations before resolution of the Palestinian question.

After the interview, Turki joked with Ravid about marrying an Arab woman to improve his Arabic. When Ravid asked him to visit him in Israel, the prince responded that he would if Ravid would host him.

Bahrain or Morocco?

Israeli and Moroccan media have reported in recent weeks that Netanyahu’s next trip to an Arab state with no formal relations would be to Morocco.

A Moroccan media report, citing Israeli media, claimed the trip will take place on 30 March, after Pope Francis visits the North African country.

A Moroccan government spokesperson did not deny the story, but said the government refuses to comment on what it calls rumors.

In December, Mort Fridman, president of Israel lobby giant AIPAC, reportedly suggested that Netanyahu’s next stop in the Gulf will be Bahrain.

Bahrain has been even more open than some of its neighbors in its embrace of Israel.

The island state’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa regularly tweets in defense of Israel and Netanyahu and against Iran.

In another report earlier this month, Ravid revealed that Al Khalifa approached Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni at the February 2017 Munich Security Conference to relay a message on behalf of Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Bahrain’s foreign minister informed Livni that the king has decided to move towards normalization with Israel, and wanted her to inform Netanyahu.

Livni reportedly rushed back to Israel to brief the prime minister.

“The relationship between Israel and Bahrain has been going on for more than 25 years,” Ravid wrote.

On Thursday, Ravid asked Bahrain’s foreign minister if and when Netanyahu would be invited to visit the island state.

“It will happen when it happens,” the minister answered.

In 2009, Bahrain’s king met secretly with then Israeli President Shimon Peres in New York, a meeting organized by an unnamed Israeli diplomat who warmed up to several Bahrain foreign ministers, according to Ravid.

When Peres passed away in 2016, Bahrain’s foreign minister paid tribute to him on Twitter, and the government sent a representative to the funeral in Israel.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was as keen as his father to normalize with Israel.

The crown prince wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2009 calling for normalization between Arab states and Israel that was praised by Netanyahu.

Then, Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar sought an interview with the crown prince “so that he would express these views directly to the Israeli public via Israeli media,” Shapiro told Ravid.

Eldar received a positive response, “and was invited to interview the Bahraini foreign minister during his visit to New York in September for the UN General Assembly.”

Soon after, Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell flew to Manama to speak to the crown prince directly, who told him that “We, the Arabs, should calm the Israelis’ concerns and talk to them directly, and it will also make Netanyahu’s job easier.”

“There are six horses in the race – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman – if I had to bet which horse would cross the finish line of diplomatic relations first, I would bet on the Bahraini horse,” Marc Schneier, an American rabbi active in promoting Israeli-Arab normalization, told Ravid.

Yet others may be trying to catch up, including Kuwait which has been the most resistant to normalization until now.

A Kuwaiti business delegation visited Israel earlier this month, with approval from Netanyahu’s office.

Kuwaiti journalist Fajer Alsaeed appeared on Israel’s public broadcaster Kan in January to call for full Arab normalization with Israel, after doing so on her Twitter account.

And, Israel’s foreign ministry announced earlier this year that three Iraqi delegations visited Israel in 2018. The Iraqi parliament’s deputy speaker Hassan Karim al-Kaabi demanded a probe into the visits.

Ali Abunimah assisted with translation.

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Apart from the failed state of Yemen, the entire Arabian peninsula is composed of vassal states to the West, which Israel is a part of.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.