Why Israel is silently approaching the Gulf monarchs | News


IIn mid-February 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, flew to Warsaw for a highly unusual conference. Under the auspices of US Vice President Mike Pence, he met with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and two other Gulf states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel. The main item on the agenda was to contain Iran. No Palestinians were present. Most of the links between Israel and the Gulf were kept secret – but these talks were not. In fact, Netanyahu's office leaked a video of a closed session, embarrassing the Arab participants.

The meeting publicly showed the remarkable fact that Israel, as Netanyahu was so eager to announce, is gaining acceptance of some of the richest countries in the Arab world – even if the prospects for resolving the longstanding Palestinian issue are at a higher level low of all time. . This unprecedented rapprochement was driven mainly by a shared animosity towards Iran, and by Donald Trump's new disruptive policies.

Hostility to Israel has been a defining feature of the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion or flight of more than 700,000 Palestinians – whom the Arabs call the Nakba, or catastrophe – who accompanied it. Yet over the years, the Zionist entity's pan-Arab solidarity and boycotts have largely disappeared. The last Arab-Israeli war occurred in 1973. Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan are unpopular, but last for decades. The Oslo agreement in 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was a historic achievement – albeit disappointing. And what is happening now with the Gulf states is an extremely important shift.

There is evidence of ever closer ties between Israel and five of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – none of which has formal relations with the Jewish state. Trump highlighted this accelerated change in his first overseas trip as president – to the Saudi capital, Riyadh -, flying directly to Tel Aviv. Saudi Arabia's hopes for aid in its much-vaunted "century agreement" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have since disappeared. However, Netanyahu is seeking to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. And there has been speculation about a public meeting between him and Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of South Korea who was largely blamed for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. That would be a sensational moment – and highly controversial – and that's why the Saudis are frantically signaling that it will not happen. Still, the meeting with Netanyahu in Warsaw went far beyond anything that happened before. The abnormal is becoming normal.

The original impetus for these developing relations between Israel and the Gulf states was a mutual displeasure for Barack Obama. In the early Arab spring, he infuriated the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, and alarmed Israel by abandoning Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, and then expressed support for the popular uprising in Syria and called for Bashar al-Assad's resignation. In 2015, when the US-led nuclear deal was signed with Iran, the country vehemently opposed Israel and most of the Gulf countries. In September of that year, Russia's military intervention in Syria marked the beginning of the end of the crisis for Assad. Tehran's strong support for its ally in Damascus and its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon – Iran's "axis of resistance" – were viewed with similar disgust in Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

"The Obama administration was hated by Saudi Arabia and Israel because it prevented them both," a senior Saudi told me. A veteran Israeli official made the same point: "There was a sense that we were looking at an American administration that was not so committed to America's traditional friends. We had to make a common cause because there was a sense of being abandoned by ourselves. Unconsciously, Obama contributed significantly to the build-up of relations between us and the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis. "

Netanyahu's game plan is to promote relations with the Gulf and beyond, and thus marginalize and pressure the Palestinians. "What is happening to the Arab countries has never happened in our history, even when we have signed peace agreements," is its carefully polished formula. "Cooperation in different ways and at different levels is not necessarily visible above the surface, but what is beneath the surface is much larger than at any other time." As Dore Gold, a former national security advisor to Netanyahu, smile, these words are "carefully worded to convey a positive message without spilling the beans."

The priority of the Saudis and their allies is to resist Iran, which in recent years has consolidated its position in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, where it supports the Houthi rebels. MBS has notoriously described Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, as a "new Hitler." Netanyahu likened Obama's nuclear deal to the 1938 Munich agreement – and after Trump quit last summer, Netanyahu signaled Israel's willingness to join an "international coalition" against Tehran. "We were raised to see Israel as an enemy that occupied the Arab countries," argues an analyst from the Emirates. "The reality now is that the Israelis are there, whether they like it or not. We have common interests with them – and it's about Iran, about interests, not emotions. "

There is also pragmatic recognition in the Gulf capitals of the benefits of security, of technological and economic links with an incredibly powerful Israel – not only for its own sake, but also because of the US approval it brings. Israel sees ties with the Gulf as an important way of demonstrating its own influence in Washington. "It is doubtful whether the scope of (US) aid to the Arab countries could have been sustained without the support of Aipac (main pro-Israel lobby group) and Jewish organizations," suggests Eran Lerman, former deputy head of the Council National Security Agency. .

None of this means that the Palestinian question is gone. "Normalization" (of relations with Israel) remains a dirty word for millions of Arabs, which is why autocratic leaders in the Gulf fear popular opposition to their new entanglement with Netanyahu. Formally, all GCC states remain committed to the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which offers Israel recognition in exchange for a Palestinian state in the occupied territories in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. But even this is far more than Netanyahu will ever accept: he will consider only a Palestinian "state-less" and openly refuses to dismantle the illegal settlements that divide the West Bank into disconnected enclaves. Netanyahu's many Israeli critics – outraged by allegations of corruption he faces next month – have complained that he is exaggerating both the Iranian threat and the significance of his Gulf diplomacy, completely ignoring the existential crisis in Israel's backyard. failure to make peace with the Palestinians.

NEthanyahu's meeting with the Saudis and Emirates in Warsaw was not the first dramatic public glimpse of this changing reality in the Middle East. In October last year, the Israeli prime minister held talks in Muscat, the capital of Oman, with his ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The next day his Likud party colleague, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, was visiting Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, while at the same time Israeli athletes competed in Doha in neighboring Qatar.

News of Netanyahu's trip to Muscat included video footage of his lectures in the ornate Bait al-Baraka palace. The prime minister, in blue suit and tie, was seen exchanging niceties with the Sultan in a turban and a traditional white dinner robe. The Israeli leader's wife, Sara, was there with other members of his delegation, including an impassive middle-aged man named Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad intelligence service.

During Regev's stay in Abu Dhabi, where Israel's top judo team was attending a tournament, she cried in front of the cameras when the Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem (the Hebrew words are anxious for Zion) was played. She later visited the opulent Sheikh Zayed mosque in commemoration of the founder of the United Arab Emirates, a loyal supporter of the Palestinian cause. These two Israeli ministerial visits to the capitals of the Gulf gave a powerful impetus to the impression of drastic changes in the alliances of the region.

But when news of Netanyahu's visit to Oman arose, there was a reminder of the risks of an adverse reaction. Six Palestinians were killed and 180 wounded by snipers of the Israeli army on the Gaza border, where weekly protests defy the blockade imposed on Israel by the territory since 2007.

Palestinian protesters on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, October 2018

Palestinian demonstrators at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip in October 2018. Photo: Mohammed Saber / EPA

"Our [Gulf] Arab brothers … stabbed us in front and back, leaving us politically as they embraced Israel, "complained Palestinian activist Kamel Hawwash. "Israeli flags may soon be flying in the skies of some Gulf states, while pressing the Palestinian leadership to accept a peace agreement" which is unacceptable. "He described" disgusting images of a radiant … Netanyahu – the leader of an oppressive apartheid state, with buckets of Palestinians and other Arab blood on his hands – being welcomed … by the sick Sultan of Oman . "

Netanyahu was not, in fact, the first Israeli leader to visit Muscat. Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met Qaboos in 1994, as well as his successor, Shimon Peres. But by the mid-1990s, the Oslo peace process, though flawed and already stumbling, was still being pursued by Israel and Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. It was still – almost – possible to believe in a happy ending to the most intractable conflict in the world. Nowadays, by contrast, no peace talks have been held between Israel and the PLO since 2014, when the Obama administration finally threw the towel. That's a very significant difference.

But despite these recent flashes of publicity, the concrete evidence of Israeli ties to the Gulf states is still rare – because they remain largely covert.

The links are most visible to the United Arab Emirates, where Israel has only an official diplomatic presence at the International Renewable Energy Agency's headquarters in Abu Dhabi – although both countries emphasize that they do not have bilateral relations. Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Labor Party, held talks last December. Netanyahu is believed to have met leaders of the Emirates in Cyprus in 2015 to discuss how to confront Iran. But the secret contacts between the two countries were routine since the mid-1990s – some of which were recorded in US diplomatic cables issued by WikiLeaks. The Emirates "believe in the role of Israel because of their perception of Israel's close relationship with the US, but also because of their sense that they can count on Israel against Iran," an Israeli diplomat observed in 2009, adding that in general the Gulf Arabs "believe Israel can do magic".

These "undersea" relations suffered a severe setback in 2010 when a Mossad attack team assassinated Hamas agent Mahmoud al-Mabhouh at a hotel in Dubai. Mabhouh was Hamas's arms procurement link with Iran. The Emirates banned anyone identified as an Israeli from entering the country even if they were traveling with a foreign passport. But it was not long before the discrete diplomatic and commercial ties were resumed. "In those cases, you just keep your head down and wait until it's all over," said an Israeli businessman based in Switzerland. In 2013, Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke from Jerusalem via satellite to 29 foreign ministers from Arab and Muslim countries who attended a conference in Abu Dhabi.

The Israelis quietly participated in joint military exercises with United Arab Emirates forces in both the United States and Greece beginning in 2016. Last year, the UAE military visited an Israeli air base to analyze the operations of the F-35 fighter jets In the USA. denied by Israel. Clandestine cooperation is believed to include surveillance of Israeli intelligence over Iran and the sale of Israeli drones used in the Yemen war.

Israel Alliances in the Arabian Gulf

But the clearest evidence of overlapping interests between the Gulf and Israel came in occasional public statements from Gulf officials. In the insular kingdom of Bahrain, where the Sunni monarchy Al Khalifa oppresses a Shiite majority and the protests were crushed by the Saudi intervention in 2011, the foreign minister faced a conviction last year when he spoke of Israel's right to defend itself after Iranian missiles were released from Syria. In Arabic-language social media, opponents of normalization exploded in indignation. But in late 2017, when Trump announced the controversial decision to transfer the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Foreign Minister of Bahrain tweeted: "It is not helpful to choose a quarrel with the US on collateral issues as we fight together against the clear and present danger of the Teo-fascist Islamic republic." There are rumors that the capital of Bahrain, Manama, may be the next destination of the GCC of Netanyahu.

Qatar, the peninsula's dissident, has long since behaved independently, and more so since a coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017, to pressure it for its support for Islamic groups and their perceived tolerance of Iran. But in recent years, Doha has played an increasingly public role in mediating between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, with the Qatari emissary delivering suitcases full of millions of dollars in cash to pay official wages and alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. its blockade by Israel. Qatar is criticized by the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, for legitimizing its Islamic rival Hamas.

Oman also gets on badly with the Saudis and the Emirates because it has always had friendly relations with Iran, which has led to speculation that Netanyahu's trip should send a message to Tehran. Sources in Oman believe, however, that the Sultan's invitation was about publicizing his pro-Israel credentials to Washington, where Trump's national security team suspects of Oman's ties to the Islamic Republic. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif later revealed that he had been advised in advance of Netanyahu's trip and accused Israel of trying to cause disagreements in the Gulf.

FListening to Iran, above all, is what united Israel and the Gulf states. Tehran's suspicion dates back to the Iranian revolution of 1979, but has intensified in the last two decades. The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq – which greatly increased Iran's influence in the region by removing a long-time enemy, Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime – occurred a year after exposing a secret uranium enrichment facility. Iran had not left the country. nuclear ambitions. This accentuated the focus on the regional aspirations of the Islamic Republic, including a potential threat to Israel's undeclared nuclear monopoly.

In 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of the emergence of a "growing Shiite" that stretches from Damascus to Tehran, through Baghdad, where Iraq's Shi'ite majority were allowed to withdraw from Saddam. The assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 involved Syria and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah organization. In January 2006, Bashar al-Assad of Syria met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In December 2005, at the umbrella of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Mecca, Ahmadinejad used a speech to deny the Holocaust – described by an observer as "a brazen act of superiority that left Al Saud [Saudi Arabia’s ruling family] mortified and unable to respond. "

The main turning point was the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The 34-day conflict marked a shift in regional dynamics. Riyadh condemned Hezbollah's incursion into Israel and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, describing it not as "legitimate resistance" but as a "badly calculated adventure." The Saudis and Israelis had a "common interest in dealing with Hezbollah and Iran, a serious coup," recalled Daniel Kurtzer, who had been US ambassador to Israel until the previous year. Saudi clerics officially sanctioned criticized Hezbollah, while opponents of Saudi Arabian rulers "took advantage of the war to highlight the caution, immobility, impiety and – in some cases, illegitimacy – of the Saudi regime," a subsequent study concluded. In August, Assad insulted the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as "half-men" because of his animosity towards the Lebanese militia.

French UN soldiers pass a billboard showing the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini after the Israeli-Hezbollah war in southern Lebanon in September 2006

UN peacekeepers with a billboard showing the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini after the Israeli-Hezbollah war in southern Lebanon in September 2006. Photo: Francois Mori / AP

Secret diplomacy between Israel and the pro-Western Arab states intensified. In mid-September 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveled to the Jordanian capital, Amman, to meet with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to Washington DC, known as "Bandar Bush" for because of its close links with the presidential family. Now he was national security adviser to King Abdullah. Back in Riyadh, the Saudis were furious when the news leaked from the meeting – as a former Israeli intelligence officer told me – and denied that it had happened. Publicly, Olmert said only that he was "highly impressed by various movements and declarations linked to Saudi Arabia." Nor did he refer to meeting Bandar when he published his memoirs a decade later. (Israeli clandestine relations with Arab countries are still considered a matter of national security by military censorship authorities and a ministerial committee that reviews serving publications and former officials and politicians.)

One of the main players on the Israeli side was Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who received a proactive strategy of building alliances with Arabs and other partners, partly as a means of allowing the killing of Iranian scientists by Israel and sabotage of nuclear of Tehran. program. "Israel and the Gulf states were in the same boat," noted David Meidan, who ran the Mossad international department.

"Suddenly, the Mossad was teaching Farsi," a former intelligence officer marveled. It was reported around that time that a meeting had been held at the Jordanian resort resort of Aqaba in the Red Sea between Dagan, Bandar and the Jordanian intelligence chief who decided to "build and accelerate the exchange of information" to deal with Iranian threats . The conspicuous presence of Dagan's successor, Yossi Cohen – nicknamed "the model" because of his fashion suits – alongside Netanyahu in Muscat last October may have been a not-so-subtle signal to the Iranians about intelligence access to the Gulf capitals.

A former diplomat from the United Arab Emirates told me that the threat of Iran today had a unifying effect comparable to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to a previously unacceptable military presence in Saudi Arabia. "If it were not for the Palestinian issue," said the former diplomat, "this relationship with Israel would be very public and would be most welcome because we need your military equipment and technology."

Jamal al-Suwaidi, the founder of the government-backed Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, put it more directly: "The Palestinian cause is no longer at the forefront of Arab interests, as it used to be for decades; The priority has been drastically lost in view of the challenges, threats and problems facing the countries of the region. "Similarly, he added, the Israeli issue was not comparable to the" threats posed by Iran, Hezbollah and terrorist groups. "

There is still audible disagreement in the Gulf about the developing rapprochement with Israel. "I am against normalization," insists Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist from Dubai. "I am opposed to abandoning the Palestinian issue because others are capitalizing politically. Although Palestine is not the number one issue, it is still a problem – perhaps in the heart, not so much in the mind. "An indication, however, of the UAE's priorities can be found in the rigid state controls imposed on the media: news sites affiliated with Qatar and Iran are blocked, but Israeli sites are not.

In addition to the contempt shared by Iran, the Gulf states and Israel were united by a hostility common to Islamic parties. The Arabic and English media associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey and Qatar routinely expose and criticize the UAE's links with Israel. Qatar-based al-Jazeera is an important source for such stories, as is the Middle East Eye website in London. The Emirates responds by recalling that the first Israeli Gulf mission was actually inaugurated in Qatar on the post-Oslo honeymoon in 1996. (Israeli representation offices in Qatar and Oman closed after the start of the second Palestinian uprising or revolt in 2000 , but the discrete ties continued.)

Many major developments in the evolving relationship between Israel and the Gulf have not been denounced because they are masked by contradictory public positions – and sometimes by blatant lies. In December 2008, when about 1,400 Palestinians were killed in Gaza in the Israeli military operation Cast Lead, the Saudis publicly criticized Israel. Shortly afterwards, however, Riyadh appeared to agree to more Israeli military action against Hamas in the form of air strikes against Iranian arms convoys in the Sudan on their way to Gaza. Leaked cables in the United States showed that the Israelis mounted a diplomatic campaign to prevent the supply of weapons. When that failed, they launched long-range incursions across the Red Sea into Sudan in early 2009, but gave prior notification to the Saudis, according to informed sources.

Until then, according to the deputy head of Israel's National Security Council, "high-level professionals in the intelligence and security fields of Israel and the Gulf countries were collaborating." The same sources confirm, as has been occasionally reported but always officially denied, that the Saudis agreed to turn a blind eye to Israeli air force flights on their territory in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities before the idea was abandoned. of Obama's opposition in 2012.

IIt is estimated that Israel's trade with the Gulf States is worth $ 1 billion per year, although no official statistics are available on both sides. The potential, however, is vast – in technology, especially cyber security, irrigation, medical supplies and the diamond industry, among others, could reach $ 25 billion per year, according to a new detailed study.

Israeli businessmen who use foreign passports fly regularly to the United Arab Emirates, usually on commercial flights via Amman. "There is a huge amount going on," says the Israeli representative of a multinational company traveling to the Arab states with an EU passport.

AGT International, owned by Israel's Mati Kochavi, provided electronic fences and surveillance equipment worth $ 800 million to protect the borders and oil fields of the United Arab Emirates. UAE officials described this as a non-political decision motivated by national security interests. In 2014, Haaretz made headlines when it first saw a mysterious weekly private flight from Tel Aviv via Amman to Dubai. Nowadays, direct flights between the Gulf and Israel, although still publicly unexplained, are often reported on social networks. Israeli companies operate in the United Arab Emirates through companies registered in Europe. Bill of lading is produced from an intermediary country, usually Jordan or Cyprus.

Like the Emirates, the Saudis quietly occupied Israeli businesses, especially in the security sphere. An Israeli company was a subcontractor on the high-tech barrier built in 2014 by European defense giant EADS along the kingdom's border with Iraq, a senior veteran of the Israeli defense establishment said in an interview.

In 2012, when hackers violated Saudi Aramco's computer system, Israeli oil companies were called. Israel would have sold drones to Saudi Arabia via South Africa, but denied having sold its "Iron Dome" system to defend Saudi Arabia. reign of Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. In 2018, Israeli media were allowed by military censors to report that the heads of state of Israel and Saudi Arabia had met at a conference in Washington for commanders of allied US armies. The Saudis denied the story.

Buildings hit by Houthi rockets in Najran, Saudi Arabia, August 2016

Buildings hit by Houthi rockets in Najran, Saudi Arabia, August 2016. Photo: Reuters

Intelligence cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states is even more secretive – although politicians and Israeli officials refer to it occasionally. In late 2017, the Israeli army chief of staff made headlines as he volunteered to share information about Iran with Saudi Arabia – noting that their countries shared "many common interests." Western sources confirm the existence of such cooperation. "The Israeli intelligence personnel who went to those countries met the leaders," said a former senior US diplomat. "They know each other very well." Obama's first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, allegedly "knew that the UAE and Saudi Arabia were … working together behind the scenes with the Mossad to counter Iranian influence."

Unofficial spokesmen from Saudi Arabia say that cooperation with Israel is confined to Iran's affairs and counterterrorism – and complain that the Israelis exaggerate their extension for propaganda purposes. As a well-connected Saudi journalist tweeted, with a typical rejection: "Fetishizing non-existent collaboration between the # Saudi / GCC and #Israel states has become a trend in western media circles / thinktank." Foreign governments close to both countries believe the two maintain a direct line to emergencies and are in regular contact. "There is now a contiguity between the Israelis and the Saudis," says a Western intelligence source. "You actually have the kind of security relationships between countries that exist when you share a border. There are practical things that need to be resolved, so you end up having a routine relationship that can create a more senior contact and a more strategic view on both sides. "

It's a fairly open secret. In 2013, Bandar bin Sultan, then commander of Saudi General Intelligence, met then-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo for what a prominent British source described as a "long drunken dinner" at a hotel in Knightsbridge. "There has never been such active cooperation between the two countries in terms of analysis, human intelligence and interception over Iran and movements loyal to it, such as Hezbollah, Houthis and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units," a specialized news in 2016. Saudi officials were said to be "satisfied as punches."

On the Saudi side, however, there are complaints that the relationship is uneven. Israel, it is said, did not always respond to requests for intelligence, even when submitted via the United States. And there are, in fact, indications of an internal debate in Israel about the value of the bonds with the kingdom. Suas sofisticadas capacidades de vigilância não são equiparadas ao que os sauditas têm a oferecer, seja o conhecimento de tribos iemenitas ou árabes na província iraniana de Khuzestan, de acordo com um israelense com longa experiência em lidar com Riyadh.

Há também uma falta de confiança entre os dois lados. "Posso entender que os israelenses não teriam dado informações confidenciais aos sauditas porque não poderiam ter certeza de que os sauditas teriam protegido a fonte – e isso teria criado um sério problema de contra-inteligência", ponderou outro veterano da inteligência. “Eles não são parceiros naturais. Eles têm culturas de inteligência muito diferentes. Os israelenses são de classe mundial e os Gulfies não são. Os israelenses não entrariam em um relacionamento a menos que conseguissem algum dividendo apropriado.

TO desenvolvimento de ligações entre Israel e o Golfo recebeu um impulso significativo com a chegada de Trump à Casa Branca – embora os primeiros planos dos EUA para um encontro entre Netanyahu, MBS da Arábia Saudita e o príncipe herdeiro dos Emirados, Mohammed bin Zayed, não se materializassem. Mas a tendência já estava clara sob Obama. Sinais de aprofundamento das relações entre a Arábia Saudita e Israel multiplicaram-se quando o rei Salman subiu ao trono em 2015, e ainda mais desde que o MBS – que foi traçado pela inteligência israelense sob as ordens de Netanyahu – foi promovido a príncipe herdeiro.

Em 2016, Israel deu permissão ao Egito para transferir para a Arábia Saudita as ilhas de Tiran e Sanafir, no Mar Vermelho, na foz do Golfo de Aqaba. Um lobista saudita, Salman Ansari, pediu uma "aliança colaborativa" com Israel para ajudar o projeto Visão 2030 da MBS para a reforma econômica e diversificação. Ambos os países enfrentaram "ameaças constantes de grupos extremistas … diretamente apoiados pelo governo totalitário do Irã", argumentou. O projeto de US $ 500 bilhões da Neom, perto das fronteiras da Jordânia, Egito e Israel, atraiu forte interesse israelense. O Estreito de Tiran, cujo bloqueio pelo presidente egípcio Gamal Abdel Nasser desencadeou a guerra de 1967, agora enfrentava um futuro melhor, refletiu o comentarista Abdelrahman al-Rashed, “em que a paz e a prosperidade prevalecem”.

A decisão inflamatória de Trump, em dezembro de 2017, de transferir a embaixada dos Estados Unidos em Israel de Tel Aviv para Jerusalém, quebrando um consenso internacional de longa data, encontrou inicialmente uma resposta silenciosa em Riad. O “acordo final” do presidente para resolver o conflito Israel-Palestina foi discutido por seu genro Jared Kushner com a MBS. Fugas subsequentes apontaram para um papel chave para os sauditas em pressionar os palestinos. And when the crown prince made a three-week trip to the US last spring, he transmitted even louder signals about his intentions toward Israel, telling the Atlantic that the Palestinians should accept Trump’s plan or “shut up and stop complaining” about an issue that was no longer a priority compared to confronting Iran. MBS also explicitly acknowledged Jewish claims to Israel, declaring: “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza burned pictures of the Saudi royals.

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. Photograph: AP

Unusually, MBS was then reined in by his father. In April 2018, at the Arab League summit in Dhahran, Salman announced that it would be named the al-Quds (Jerusalem) summit. “In Saudi Arabia, the king is the one who decides on this issue now, not the crown prince,” as a senior Arab diplomat explained. The resumption of Saudi financial aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority – which was also a response to Qatari support for Hamas-ruled Gaza – was another clue.

In the background, however were other signs of Saudi flexibility: in March 2018 a commercial flight from Delhi to Tel Aviv was allowed for the first time to cross Saudi airspace. But there was a significant qualification. “Kerry asked the Saudis to let [Israeli airline] El Al fly over their territory,” reflected an Israeli security expert. “And who got permission? Air India! it shows that the Saudis can be flexible but they cannot betray the Palestinians, not because they love them or trust them but because it is an issue for their people and the religious establishment – and also because of their position vis-a-vis Iran.” Nevertheless, it fitted the narrative that Netanyahu has been eagerly promoting, that relations with key Arab states were “improving beyond imagination” regardless of the Palestinian issue. In June the Saudi intelligence director Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan reportedly joined Kushner and Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt, as well as the Mossad’s Yossi Cohen and his Palestinian Authority, Jordanian and Egyptian counterparts, in Aqaba to discuss regional security.

These increasingly cosy relationships suffered a serious blow with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. Amid international condemnation and constantly changing Saudi responses, the Israeli government was initially silent. When Netanyahu eventually addressed the issue, he deplored a “horrendous” incident, but warned it was important that Saudi Arabia remain stable – which was more or less exactly what Trump said, too. Saudi sources said his position was “much appreciated” in Riyadh. Israel’s intelligence community was said to be alarmed by MBS’s recklessness. “Let’s hope that if he wants to assassinate people again – say commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – he’ll consult people with some relevant experience,” wrote the security expert Ronen Bergman. Surveillance equipment manufactured by the Israeli company NSO was allegedly used to track the Saudi journalist, according to the Washington Post. And one of the two top aides to MBS who were blamed for the killing was the most senior Saudi official to have visited Israel (in search of state-of-the-art surveillance technology), reported the Wall Street Journal. It revealed too that new arrangements had been put in place to allow Israel businessmen to quietly visit the kingdom.

In public, however, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel remains cautious and reticent. Unlike the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, it refuses to allow Israelis to attend international sports events. “Not hosting a chess tournament with Israeli participants is a statement of our resolution for a free Palestine,” commented the columnist Tariq al-Maeena. “As the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques, Saudi Arabia bears the weight of the Muslim world and this form of commitment is necessary to ward off grand Zionist designs for the region.” Last December the Saudis even opposed a UN resolution condemning Hamas, along with all other Arab states.

Among the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, alarm seems to have subsided. Speculation about how far MBS will dare to go in embracing Israel is no more than “gossipy innuendo”, said the Palestinian ambassador in London, Husam Zomlot, who was thrown out of Washington as part of the US offensive against the PLO. Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s chief negotiator, scorned the “imperialist fantasies of the Trump team”, insisting that “the whole of Palestine remains close in the heart of every Arab – and is not going to fade away”.

Netanyahu is sticking to his script: visiting Chad in January, he boasted that Israel’s relations with that country had been renewed in the face of Iranian and Palestinian opposition, and that it was the result of improving links with the Arab world. But on the eve of the Warsaw conference, a leaked Israeli foreign ministry report assessed that the Saudis were not prepared to go further in developing overt relations. The same point was made by the Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, another ex-spymaster. “Israeli public opinion should not be deceived into believing that the Palestinian issue is a dead issue,” he said in an unprecedented interview with an Israeli TV channel.

The attitudes of Gulf governments have clearly changed. But the bottom line is that Israel has failed to provide the incentives required for the Saudis and their allies to come out of the closet, to allow them to reconcile geopolitical logic with popular sentiment, because it has not offered anything approaching an acceptable deal for the Palestinians. “Everyone knows about the rapprochement with Israel, but no one can talk about it publicly, and no one can advocate it because there is nothing for the Palestinians in return,” concludes an Arab analyst in Abu Dhabi. “The assumption is that if it was going to happen openly, it would have to be in return for something big, and it does not look as though that is going to happen.”

Many Israelis agree. Even the ex-Mossad director Pardo argues that the cosiest clandestine connections are no substitute for public engagement, reiterating that without significant concessions to the Palestinians, Israel’s relations with Arab states will continue to be limited, security-focused and largely secret. Netanyahu’s purpose, as another critic concluded after his Muscat trip, was to “prove that there was no basis to leftwing claims that the occupation and Israeli settlements hinder normalisation of ties with the Arab world”. The Palestinians, in other words, will simply not go away – whatever else happens.

Ian Black, former Guardian Middle East editor and diplomatic editor, is a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre at LSE, where he is researching Israel-Gulf relations. His latest book, Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017, is out now in Penguin paperback and available at guardianbookshop.com

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.


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