Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, was key in facilitating covert relations between Gulf states and Israel in the early 2000s.
Secret ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia accelerated in 2003, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked longtime Mossad chief Meir Dagan to reexamine relations with neighboring Gulf states, according to a report by Barak Ravid for Israel’s Channel 10.
“The prime minister made it clear to Dagan that it is appropriate to try to use, as they say, the change in the political climate,” according to Dov Weisglass, a former senior adviser to Sharon who was present during the meeting.
“This was the opening shot of the Mossad’s extensive secret diplomatic activity vis-à-vis the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia,” Ravid reported.
During Israel’s July 2006 war on Lebanon, Saudi Arabia conveyed secret messages of support to Israel and urged it to strike at Hizballah with all its might. Saudi Arabia was disappointed with the results of the war, however.
On 13 September that year, one month after the end of the war, Dagan and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert flew to Amman where they met with King Abdullah of Jordan as well as Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the head of the Saudi national security council and former ambassador to the US, according to Ravid.
Olmert and Prince Bandar spoke about the Palestinians, Iran, Syria and the war in Lebanon. Prince Bandar requested that Olmert not oppose large arm deals between the US and Saudi Arabia.
Olmert’s meeting with Prince Bandar was leaked to the Israeli media, which resulted in a rift in covert relations that lasted a year and a half.
No longer needed brokers
During a May 2009 meeting between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, Netanyahu tried to push for overt relations with the Saudis.
“Netanyahu wanted to advance the pressure on Iran. Obama wanted to advance the peace process,” Ravid reported.
“If the Saudis were willing to establish a public connection with Israel” there would be advancement on those issues, Obama’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, told Ravid.
“Perhaps a meeting between [Netanyahu] and King Abdullah,” Shapiro said. That did not materialize, although covert relations between the countries have continued.
Between 2009 and 2012, Israel considered attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities several times.
“When we thought of the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, of course we considered the possibility that they would use the airspace of Saudi Arabia or another country, and that there may have been talks between the two governments through certain channels to prepare,” Shapiro said.
After Iran and six powers, including the United States, signed an interim agreement on the Iranian nuclear energy program in November 2013, Saudi Arabia and Israel no longer required a third party mediator. Tamir Pardo, head of the Mossad at the time, flew to Riyadh himself to meet with Prince Bandar.
The Saudi prince asked Pardo to convey a message to Netanyahu: “Are you Israel of the Six-Day War or Israel of the Second Lebanon War?”
The meaning was clear: the Israel of the 1967 Six-Day War was seen as all powerful and all conquering, whereas in Lebanon in 2006, Israel was widely seen as having suffered a humiliating defeat – hardly putting it in a position to take on Iran.
Rift in relations
In 2014, Israel rejected a Saudi plan to rework the so-called peace process to accelerate joint effort against Iran.
On the last day of Israel’s devastating 51-day assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014, Saudi Arabia proposed an updated version of the so-called Arab peace initiative that includes rehabilitating Gaza.
More than 2,250 Palestinians were killed during that assault – about one in every 1,000 Gaza residents. Israeli fatalities included nearly 70 soldiers and six civilians.
The plan was for Netanyahu and the Saudi foreign minister to present this proposal at the UN General Assembly a month later, and accelerate their cooperation on Iran in the process.
In September 2014, Netanyahu met with Prince Bandar, along with an envoy of King Salman Al Saud in an unnamed third country.
Netanyahu was reportedly enthusiastic at first and the two countries began drafting a proposal to present at the UN in the days that followed.
After Israel proposed a draft of its own, the Saudis agreed to a large number of points but asked that Israel be more flexible. Netanyahu reportedly refused and the deal fell apart.
Prince Bandar was furious, and sent an oral message to Netanyahu: “You are a liar,” Ravid reported.
This led to a year-long rift in covert relations. Relations began to mend after the death of King Abdullah and the appointment of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as de facto ruler.
The Saudi-Israeli embrace has become even tighter in recent months, as Israel has lent its political and diplomatic muscle to shore up international support for Mohammad bin Salman, who is directly implicated in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Netanyahu going to Morocco?
Meanwhile, Netanyahu secretly met with Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita in New York in September during the UN General Assembly, according to another report by Ravid.
Netanyahu told Bourita he wants to normalize relations between the two countries, and expressed interest in publicly visiting the North African state.
Israeli sources told Ravid that the two leaders discussed Iran as well.
Months before the meeting took place, Morocco expelled the Iranian ambassador and closed Iran’s embassy after accusing Tehran of arming the Polisario Front, a group that seeks to liberate Western Sahara from Moroccan rule.
One month after the September meeting, Tunisian and Algerian authorities refused to allow Netanyahu’s plane to fly in their airspace en route to Morocco.
Netanyahu intended to visit this upcoming March, but Morocco asked him to postpone his visit.
“Officials in various countries, including France, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have tried to intervene and put pressure on the authorities in Algeria and Tunisia to allow the plane to pass through,” Ravid reported, but the two countries maintained their rejection despite promises that the incident would not be leaked to the media.
Tunisia and Algeria refused another French offer to send a Moroccan plane to take Netanyahu to Morocco in secret.
It is unclear why there was an insistence on having Netanyahu’s plane fly over Algeria and Tunisia, given that another routing, avoiding their territory, could easily be chosen – unless the purpose was explicitly to implicate the two countries in Morocco’s normalization with Israel.
Malika Khalil, a member of Morocco’s parliament, stated on Tuesday that Morocco’s position towards normalization with Israel has not changed, adding that Moroccans stand with the Palestinian people.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu recently announced that Sudan had cleared the way for Israeli airliners to fly over its territory on their way to South America.
In recent years Israel has lobbied on behalf of Sudan, whose president is wanted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, reportedly because Israel now sees Sudan as a potential ally against Iran.
Israel also restored its ties with Chad recently, and is intending to do the same with Mali.
Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan and Mali have no formal diplomatic ties with Israel.
- Gulf-Israel alliance against Iran
- Arab normalization
- Saudi Arabia
- Saudi-Israeli relations
- Ariel Sharon
- Meir Dagan
- Barak Ravid
- Channel 10
- Dov Weisglass
- Ehud Olmert
- King Abdullah of Jordan
- Bandar bin Sultan
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Barack Obama
- Dan Shapiro
- 2006 war on Lebanon
- Tamir Pardo
- 1967 War
- Operation Protective Edge
- UN General Assembly
- King Salman Al Saud
- Mohammad bin Salman
- Jamal Khashoggi
- The Washington Post
- Nasser Bourita
- Polisario Front
- Western Sahara
- United Arab Emirates
- Malika Khalil
- International Criminal Court