When Jerusalem Needs to Talk to Riyadh: This Saudi Newspaper Is Israel's Backchannel to the Arab World

London-based Saudi news site has interviewed a handful of Israelis on Iran and regional issues, most recently bringing the head of the Israeli army to Gulf readers

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Screenshot of Elaph website
Screenshot of Elaph websiteCredit: Screenshot of Elaph website

The Arabic language newspaper "Elaph" has become in recent years a conduit for official Israeli communications with the Gulf States. Both the Israel Defense Forces and Israel's leaders have recently utilized this newspaper and website as a channel for presenting official Israeli stances on issues, sometimes at the website's request, specifically in addressing issues involving Iran and Hezbollah.

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The London-based Saudi newspaper published an unprecedented interview Thursday with the Israeli military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who called Iran the "real and largest threat to the region." He said Israel and Saudi Arabia are in complete agreement about Iran's intentions and that Israel was willing to share intelligence information with the Saudis.

>> Israeli military chief gives unprecedented interview to Saudi media: 'Ready to share intel on Iran' <<

Screen shot from Elaph websiteCredit: Screen shot from Elaph website

Sources involved in Eisenkot's interview told Haaretz that the interview process was approved by Israeli leaders, and that the IDF chief's statement, including that Israel is ready to share intelligence information with Saudi Arabia, was not a surprise in Jerusalem.

The source explained that "it's not new that Israel and the Gulf States are strengthening their relationships based on shared interests in the Middle East, primarily their concern over an emboldened Iran.

"The army chief's interview is another link in the chain of interactions taking place, which are, in general, behind the scenes, and don't necessarily signal that any other significant steps are being taken."

>> Is Saudi Arabia pushing Israel into war with Hezbollah and Iran? | Ex-Obama envoy Dan Shapiro >>

Eisenkot's Thursday interview with the site was not the first time top Israeli officials have spoken with "Elaph" to communicate messages regarding Israeli policy to the Saudi government and the Arab public.

Zeev Elkin, a minister for Netanyahu's Likud party, was also interviewed by the site as a member of Israel's security cabinet in January 2016, and discussed the possibility of working alongside Arab countries and promoting bilateral political agreements.

Last May, the IDF's spokesman gave them an interview warning of ISIS infiltration of Gaza.

Two years ago, then-director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Dori Gold, was also interviewed by "Elaph," and revealed that Israel had hit a Syrian arms shipment of SA-22 missiles headed for Hezbollah.

Michael Oren, a deputy minister from the centrist Kulanu party and former ambassador to the U.S., has also spoken with the site, as did an unnamed senior Israeli officer, who commented on the assassination of Samir Kuntar, and warned Hezbollah against launching a revenge attack.

Eisenkot’s interview with Elaph made headlines throughout the Arab world on Thursday – especially among media outlets antagonistic to the Saudi government, which used it as a way to attack Riyadh for what they termed a Saudi rush toward normalization with Israel.

“Elaph ... A process of normalization with Israel,” blared the headline in the Qatari paper Al-Araby al-Jadeed. Qatar is currently under a Saudi blockade.

Two television stations affiliated with Hezbollah, Al-Manar and Al Mayadeen, also gave the interview prominent coverage. Al Mayadeen even quoted a senior Jordanian official who, in an interview with journalist David Hearst of the Middle East Eye website, voiced concern over what he termed a headlong Saudi rush into Israel’s embrace.

The official, who asked to remain anonymous, charged that this rapprochement was coming at the cost of Saudi concessions on key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like the refugees, which could endanger Jordan’s stability. He also accused the Saudis of pressuring Jordan to join their anti-Iran campaign and lambasted Mohammed bin Salman.

"He deals with Jordanians and the Palestinian Authority as if they are the servants and he is the master and we have to follow what he does," the official told Hearst. “He neither consults nor listens to us.”

Eisenkot’s interview also received extensive coverage from the Qatari television station Al Jazeera, which stressed that it was the first interview of its kind. The station added that the interview gives a tailwind to the diplomatic assistance which it said Israel is giving Saudi Arabia in both its war in Yemen and its campaign against Iran.

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