When Mossad agents poisoned to death – according to foreign media reports – senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in January 2010 in Dubai, Israeli diplomat Bruce Kashdan was also present in the emirate. The Mossad chief at the time, Meir Dagan, didn’t bother informing him in advance, so he learned about the assassination in the media.
Later, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, told Kashdan he knew that the Israeli didn’t know about the operation.
This example demonstrates the great trust that has built up over the last 25 years between Kashdan, who is employed on a special contract and whose official title is “consultant,” and Gulf leaders. Kashdan is a modest person who doesn’t seek publicity and operates under the radar.
Some people take advantage of this for the worse, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and don’t take Kashdan on the trips and meetings he works so hard for. Instead, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and to a certain extent National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat reap the credit.
This time too, when the announcement on the normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE was made, Kashdan was forgotten. The breakthrough came after Netanyahu promised Donald Trump personally – and in messages to Crown Prince Mohammed – that the idea of imposing Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank was off the agenda, construction in the settlements would be frozen and the two-state solution would be the only game in town.
As is his wont, Netanyahu rushed to create an illusion that annexation was still alive and kicking, mostly to soften the shock among right-wing voters over his U-turn.
Netanyahu deserves praise for his historic step with the UAE. If it succeeds, it can be expected to lead to a renewal of ties with Bahrain, Oman, Morocco and later maybe even Saudi Arabia. Still, the initiative didn’t come at a convenient time for Netanyahu, though it’s a perfectly convenient time for Trump and his advisers. Trump wants to chalk up an impressive diplomatic achievement for his evangelical voters – and maybe also Jewish ones – before the November election.
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The evidence shows that, unlike with previous peace agreements, the step with the UAE wasn’t preceded by staff work to draw up annexes on things like security, visas and aviation ties. The security cabinet and the defense and foreign ministers, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, were also excluded and learned of the agreement in the media. The assumption is that if everything works out, in a few weeks diplomatic, economic and tourism relations will be established between the two countries.
Without minimizing the importance of the event, remember that Israel and the UAE have a long history of open, and especially covert, ties that have had their ups and downs. The lifting of the cloak of secrecy is reminiscent of the 1994 rubber stamp that launched full diplomatic relations with Jordan. Ties between the two countries had gone on for almost three decades, including secret meetings between Israeli leaders and King Hussein.
Similar to the practice with other Gulf states, Israel’s relations with the UAE began back in the ‘60s; in charge was the Mossad chief and his subordinates in the Tevel division responsible for secret ties. Mossad officials under the command of Nahum Admoni, who later became Mossad chief, also visited Oman as part of these operations. And even before that they and the British helped train special forces and parachuted in weapons for the royalist forces in Yemen – with the Saudis’ knowledge.
Iran, of course
In practice, every Mossad chief since the end of the ‘60s has met with Gulf leaders and their counterparts from these countries, including Saudi Arabia, and not just once. The Gulf states need Israel because of their fear of Iran, including its nuclear aspirations and plans for regional hegemony.
In this area, Israel has contributed much more to the Gulf states than it has received in return. In 2017, the UAE air force took part in an exercise in Greece with a number of air forces, including Israel’s. “They see us as a sort of strategic hinterland,” former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, who visited the Gulf states a number of times, told me.
But the relationship with the UAE, and actually with most Arab countries, is also a derivative of the Palestinian problem. Even if most Arab leaders are sick and tired of this burden, they are forced to pay lip service out of fears that the masses will rise up against them.
That’s why every time progress is made on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, Arab leaders praise it, mediate, propose initiatives and advance their ties with Israel. This process reached its pinnacle in the ‘90s after the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority as a step on the road to establishing a Palestinian state. Dozens of countries in Asia and Africa, including in the Arab world, renewed or established diplomatic relations with Israel.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin flew with Shavit and a few aides to countries including Oman, Morocco and Indonesia. In 1996, Israel opened interest offices in Qatar and negotiated on the purchase of natural gas. A similar office was opened in Oman but it was closed when the second intifada broke out in 2000. Qatar, which since has deepened its ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Turkey – and after that with groups close to Al-Qaida – expelled Israeli officials in 2009 after a three-week Gaza war, Operation Cast Lead.
In comparison, the secret ties with the Gulf states were hardly damaged by the ups and downs in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. In an American document leaked to WikiLeaks, the Bahraini ruler took pride in 2005 that he let the Mossad open an office in the kingdom. In another document, from 2009, an American diplomat quoted the UAE ruler as saying his country had good relations with Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister at the time.
The assassination of Mabhouh caused a lot of tension with the UAE, which even canceled a large arms deal with Yavneh-based drone manufacturer Aeronautics Ltd. Because of this, the Mossad promised that Israel wouldn’t do something like that again on its soil – and ties were mended.
Two years after the assassination, Netanyahu and the UAE ruler met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. As opposed to the diplomatic and strategic arena, the business and security sectors has had deep relations with the UAE for years – hundreds of businesspeople, arms dealers and cyber experts are permitted to enter the UAE and do business in the country’s seven emirates.
These are projects worth billions of dollars, mostly in intelligence, security and cyberwarfare. Former officials in the Mossad, Shin Bet security service and Israel Defense Forces still often arrive with both foreign and Israeli passports in the role of consultants and experts. They have advised on how to protect, physically and electronically, the rulers’ palaces, hotels and other public institutions there.
Surveillance and security
Take Mati Kochavi, whose Logic Industries employed a former head of Military Intelligence, Amos Malka, a former air force chief, Eitan Ben Eliyahu, and senior executives from Israel Aerospace Industries. They set up homeland security systems for protecting natural gas facilities in the UAE, and the Falcon Eye system for surveillance and security was installed. Kochavi also concluded a deal to sell two British-made surveillance planes before he lost favor with the UAE’s leaders.
He was replaced by Avi Leumi, formerly one of the owners of Aeronautics Ltd., and David Meidan, who headed a number of units in the Mossad.
Also, a European businessman who has Israeli citizenship agreed to give his office in Dubai to Israel’s Elbit Systems, and two of his employees in Brussels arrived in Dubai with Israeli and foreign passports. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems has also tried to do business in the UAE.
All the defense export deals with the UAE have received the approval and encouragement of the Defense Ministry and Mossad, creating a revolving door – defense officials learn what’s going on in the Gulf and after they retire do business there. The big and easy money has tempted many of them, and in a few cases financial disputes have broken out between former Mossad and other security colleagues who have become partners. A number of lawsuits are in the Israeli courts, or in arbitration or mediation.
Alongside the euphoria in Israel, we mustn’t forget that the country’s relations with the UAE are like a seesaw. There have been cases when defense officials were sent in Netanyahu’s name to a Gulf state to negotiate a peace plan designed to advance negotiations with the Palestinians behind their backs. In return, diplomatic, commercial and tourism ties were to be established with many Arab countries.
Netanyahu gave his blessing to the plan, as did most Arab countries that knew about the secret contacts. All that was left was for Israel’s prime minister and the Arab leader in charge of the negotiations to give their speeches at the UN General Assembly and announce the agreement. But a few weeks before the General Assembly, Netanyahu turned back. An official from the Arab country didn’t hide his disappointment and told a confidant that Netanyahu wasn’t trustworthy.
I asked Shavit if such an incident could repeat. “Bibi’s interests are short-term,” he said. “If the situation changes and it becomes clear to him that it doesn’t serve him any longer, he won’t hesitate to change his decision.”
The decision on the step with the UAE wasn’t only Netanyahu’s. It was also the fierce desire of Trump, who next month plans to hold a ceremony on the White House lawn including other Arab leaders, Saudis, too.
Netanyahu can renege on promises to his ministers including Gantz or Ashkenazi – and even backtrack from agreements with European leaders (former French President Nicolas Sarkozy called him a liar) – but he wouldn’t dare do this to Trump. If he did, the price Israel paid would be much too high.