Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen, head of the National Security Council Meir Ben Shabbat and the prime minister’s aides have all been working hard in recent days to organize yet another trip to an Arab country for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in advance of the March 2 election. As we recall, about a week ago Netanyahu flew to Uganda and met with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the temporary Sovereignty Council of Sudan and that country’s leader.
Topping Netanyahu’s “preferred” list is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. If the efforts succeed and the two conduct a public meeting anywhere in the world at any time, but preferably before the election, there’s no question that it would be the prime minister’s crowning diplomatic and security achievement, and a significant contribution to Israel’s foreign relations.
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To that end, Netanyahu’s people are exploiting their good relationship with the U.S. administration and with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in particular. Haaretz has learned that Pompeo worked feverishly behind the scenes not only to pave the way for the meeting between Netanyahu and Al-Burhan, but also to convince the Sudanese leader to agree to appear in a joint photo-op. Al-Burhan refused, but under pressure from Pompeo he agreed to let Netanyahu to publicize the meeting, which was initially cloaked in secrecy.
A possible confab between Netanyahu and the crown prince would be the best way to signal the close ties that have developed in recent years between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Anyone who keeps track of airport radars from time to time describes mysterious flights in private Israeli planes from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Riyadh or Jedda. This week too, Avi Scharf, editor of the Haaretz English Edition, reported on a private plane belonging to a mysterious company that made recent a stopover in the Jordanian capital of Amman en route to Abu Dhabi. The plane later continued to Bahrain.
One of this company’s planes was also used by Netanyahu in the past when he flew to a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Sharm el-Sheikh. A short stopover like the one in Amman is a very common “procedure” by Israeli leaders, senior security officials, politicians and businessmen, in order to “whitewash” reports of flights to destinations in Arab countries which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
According to foreign sources, Israeli companies have extensive business ties in Saudi Arabia, mainly in the field of intelligence and cybersecurity. For example, it was reported (although the accuracy of the report is unclear) that Pegasus, the spyware developed by Israeli tech company NSO Group Technologies – which specializes in the sophisticated hacking of smartphones – has been used by Saudi intelligence in the surveillance of political rivals, including Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in Turkey last year. The crown prince has been making efforts ever since to rehabilitate his image, after allegedly having given the order to assassinate the journalist. One method has been to scatter hints about an improvement in ties with Israel.
The controversial company NSO is also doing everything possible to minimize the damage being caused by Pegasus and to stop the flow of negative reports about it. About four months ago, Israel Defense Forces Col. (res.) Oded Hershkovitz, a former deputy army spokesman, was appointed to be NSO’s media adviser. It’s also been reported that the company is putting out feelers to the chief military censor, Brig. Gen. Ariella Ben Avraham, who plans to retire in June, after five years.
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NSO needs former military personnel for its efforts to cultivate ties with Israel’s defense establishment, because it needs a green light from it in order to receive permits to export its technological knowledge. These permits are meant for regime agencies and companies, as well as security services throughout the world, and mainly for undemocratic governments and regimes, such as those in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and others. That’s where the big money is for NSO.
Despite all that, the chances of a summit between Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince look slim, certainly after publication of the details of Trump’s “deal of the century.” That’s why Netanyahu would probably be happy to “make do” with his second choice: a meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who is also deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces.
For over a decade the UAE, and Abu Dhabi in particular, has benefited from extensive ties with Israel’s defense establishment. The Defense Ministry has granted export permits to companies that have sold the UAE drones as well as equipment to protect oil installations and palaces in the various emirates, intelligence software and equipment for cyberwarfare that they installed on planes purchased in the U.K.
The scope of Israel’s business dealings with the UAE in the past decade is estimated at roughly $1 billion. Among the businessmen involved are Mati Kochavi, who owned companies registered in Switzerland and employed former Military Intelligence chief Amos Malka; former Israel Air Force Commander Eitan Ben-Eliyahu; and former senior officials in the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad and security industries. David Meidan, who headed the foreign liaison department of the Mossad, and Netanyahu’s special envoy for POWs and MIAs, and Avi Leumi, former CEO of Aeronautics, have visited Abu Dhabi very frequently in recent years.
If the Al-Nahyan option doesn’t pan out either, Netanyahu will try to meet with King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who rejected a request to do so in the last year. The default choice for the prime minister is a meeting Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Bahrain, a Saudi ally, is a Sunni kingdom with a Shi’ite majority, and its relations with Israel (including the overt ones) are the closest and most open in the Sunni world, except for Egypt and Jordan, which have full diplomatic ties with Israel. The relationships with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also become much stronger in the past decade, due to the growing fear of Iran and the marginalization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Gulf states favor an alliance with Israel because they grasp the importance of their own interests, regardless of Netanyahu, but there is no question that the prime minister was one of the first to identify the geostrategic changes in the Middle East, and also knew to leverage them in order to strengthen his own image and position as a leader and politician.
In the past 16 months Netanyahu has travelled openly to Oman and Chad, which even renewed diplomatic relations with Israel. In addition to the Tevel department in the Mossad, which is traditionally responsibly for Israel’s clandestine ties with organizations and countries without diplomatic relations with Israel, Cohen has also set up during his tenure a special unit for conducting relations with Arab countries.
For its part, the Foreign Ministry is of course very frustrated by the erosion in its status due to all these activities, but Netanyahu has been ignoring it for a long time. Like a car thief who sends his loot off to be stripped down, the prime minister has gradually been dismantling the Foreign Ministry and transferring its powers to others. A good example involves a senior ministry official, who for about two decades was in charge of Israel’s overt and covert relations with Arab countries, and in the past year has worked harder than any other senior official to promote ties with Sudan: He was not invited to fly with Netanyahu to the meeting with Al-Burhan in Uganda.
Netanyahu did not invent the wheel. For decades Israeli leaders have met openly and in secret with their counterparts from Arab and Muslim countries. These include the meetings between Golda Meir, Abba Eban, Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir and Jordan’s King Hussein; Moshe Dayan, with the king of Morocco and the deputy prime minister of Egypt before the Camp David Accords; Peres and Rabin, with the king of Morocco during the period of the Oslo Accords; then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, with the Sudanese leader; Rabin, with the Sultan of Oman and the president of Indonesia; Ehud Olmert, with the head of Saudi intelligence; and Tzipi Livni with the foreign minister of Bahrain. Since the 1980s the heads of the Mossad (Nachum Admoni and his successors) have all held secret meetings with their counterparts from most of the Arab countries, including the heads of Saudi intelligence.