Israel’s Secret Ties With the Arab World

(L) Indonesia’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla
(R) Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.(MENAHEM KAHANA/POOL/AFP)

Dozens of Arab and Muslim states are drawing closer to Israel, due in large part to a shared fear of the Iranian threat. Hamodia’s military correspondent surveys the secret agreements as well as the prospects that these will some day develop into full-fledged ties.

Binyamin Netanyahu couldn’t believe his eyes.

While at the United Nations last year to address the General Assembly, the Israeli prime minister met a well-known figure in the American political world who said she had someone she wanted to introduce him to who’d be “worth his while” to meet.

They descended a few floors and arrived at the waiting room of an office that was teeming with security personnel. Soon enough the door opened, and Netanyahu found himself shaking hands with the vice president of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla.

It’s not every day that an Israeli prime minister meets the vice president of the largest Muslim nation in the world. Indonesia is home to 265 million people, nearly all of them Muslim. Israel has no diplomatic ties with Indonesia; the little connection it does have is via the Rabbanim and mashgichim who travel there to oversee factories that export millions of dollars’ worth of kosher l’mehadrin products.

In the past, Israel had a few brief encounters with Indonesia. There was the time it sold them Skyhawk planes, through Singapore. And the time then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin paid a personal visit to Indonesia and met secretly with the Indonesian president at the time, Suharto. Over the past 10 years, trade ties have improved between the two nations, albeit conducted through intermediary nations.

The meeting between Netanyahu and Kalla was very good, and the sides opted to keep it secret. Ever since, there has been slow yet steady progress in the secret ties between the nations. Delegations from each country have visited one another.

Within a decade or two, Indonesia is on track to become one of the eight largest economies in the world. It is interested in drawing closer to Israel because of the latter’s technologies. The Indonesians’ interest was piqued when Israel sent them water purification systems after the severe earthquakes and tsunami that struck their nation.

That’s how the seeds of the relationship between the two countries were planted, similar to what has happened between Israel and other Arab and Muslim states. These are clandestine ties that are not spoken about publicly. The Arab nations are primarily interested in Israeli advances in preventing cyberattacks and terrorist activity.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz in Abu Dhabi. (Israel Foreign Ministry)

Despite Israel’s desire to advance relations with Arab countries, it is not rushing to respond to every Arab capital that signals an interest in establishing ties. Yerushalayim has become more cautious after being “burned” several times when sensitive intelligence information conveyed to high-ranking entities in several Arab nations was passed on the same day to the Iranians and, in one case, to a prominent terror group in the Middle East. Israel learned of this and complained to the heads of those states, who apologized and reassured Israel that the information was leaked by an official who was not authorized to do so. In all cases, the culprit was barred from future talks.

For example, Israel has had a big problem with one of the most important Arab nations in the Persian Gulf — the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is actually a confederation of seven Arab desert states in the southeastern Arabian Peninsula: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Al Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Qaywayn. Almost all of these are very rich in gas and oil.

Watering the Seeds of Cooperation

Workers place a banner at the pavilion where the U.S. hosted event “Peace to Prosperity” takes place outside Four Seasons Hotel in Manama, Bahrain June 24, 2019. (Reuters/Matt Spetalnick)

The UAE is arid, with not even one significant river to speak of and just 3 inches (80 mm) of yearly rainfall. Wherever they try to dig to find sorely lacking water sources, they come up with oil. Israeli experts are helping with desalination, a specialty that is sought after in almost every Arab nation that forges ties with the Jewish state.

The UAE has sun year-round, with average summer temperatures of between 104 F and 122 F; on some winter days it goes down to between 77 F and 95 F. This has led Emirati companies to purchase Israeli solar-powered systems that provide homes and factories with clean, “green” electricity.

With so much money and influence, Emirati politicians, primarily the younger generation, have become sought-after figures around the world. They are moderates who are careful not to inject fundamentalist and religious considerations into their policies, and who do not view the Israeli-Arab conflict as a religious one. They think it can be resolved through dialogue and goodwill on all sides.

This moderate approach has led to the UAE’s involvement in trying to calm tensions between Israel and Gaza. It is offering huge sums of money to radical elements in Gaza to get them to change direction and become more moderate.

Israel and the UAE have found topics of mutual interest to discuss. All the UAE countries oppose terror and radical Islam, and open their doors to Jewish tourists from around the world. They are eager to have a high-tech nation like Israel invest in their countries.

The leaders of the UAE announced last year that “we are ready to take on a greater [share of the] burden in preserving the security of our neighborhood.” That is a clear statement against Iran, which is perceived as a threat to the UAE — a threat that is bringing Israel and the UAE closer to one another.

In light of the current Iranian policies and Iran’s close proximity to the Emirates, the UAE leadership has to make some decisions. Israel is taking advantage of this to try and strengthen ties, something the country’s new foreign minister, Yisrael Katz, has been working on from day one on the job.

It can now be disclosed that Katz met with his UAE counterpart, Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan. It was not the first meeting between the two in recent months, but it was very significant because it was held with American mediation, as part of the pressure Washington has been applying on Arab nations to improve ties with Israel.

The United States understands that some of the struggle against Iran has to be diplomatic, and that closer ties between Israel and the UAE, which fears Tehran, can be very beneficial in the overall campaign against Iran and its regional aspirations.

U.S. policy in this area is led by Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, who has emerged as a diplomat with broad vision. He believes this is a rare opportunity to bring about a change in relations between Israel and the moderate Arabs who know they can employ Israel’s help in many areas.

Katz also met last month in Washington with the Bahraini foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, and took photos with him and Hook.

The efforts of some Arab nations to maintain ties with Iran, despite their opposition to it, angers Hook. He is trying to create a broad conglomerate of Arab nations who stand firmly against Tehran.

The current connection between Israel and the Gulf states, which is mostly covert and unofficial, revolves around the fear of the Iranians being able to produce nuclear weapons, and Iran’s continued involvement in civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Senior U.S. officials say that ties are gliding in the direction of increasing military and intelligence cooperation as part of the battle against Iran.

Five months ago, Hook initiated a series of meetings between Netanyahu and prominent Arab leaders during the Warsaw Convention in Poland. Since then, Washington continues to advance these meetings and is closely monitoring their progress.

Still, the UAE is not firmly coming out against Iran. When Washington requested all the Gulf states to publicly condemn Iranian activity that endangers fuel tankers in the Persian Gulf, the Emirates refused. Instead, they sent senior officials to Tehran to discuss marine security arrangements in the region.

In reality, the UAE is Israel’s reluctant partner. The same is true for the larger and more important state — Saudi Arabia. And yet there has been a revolution regarding all things relating to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Tracks to Regional Peace

Foreign Minister Katz is a visionary. When he became transportation minister 10 years ago, he had all kinds of grandiose plans to build roads, rail lines, interchanges and other such things that seemed delusional at the time. But by the time he left the ministry, many of those “delusional plans” had become realities.

He has many goals for the Foreign Ministry as well, some of them relating to his previous role as transportation minister. Already then he suggested building roads to connect Israel to its neighboring Arab nations, and rail lines from Israel’s ports to Jordan and from there to the Persian Gulf.

Katz envisions an old-new regional land connection that would alter the face of the Middle East. It would go from the Haifa port to the Saudi city of Dammam, on the Persian Gulf coast. On the way, parts of the Hijaz rail tracks would be reconstructed. The Saudis read about Katz’s plans and sent a delegation to meet him and hear his ideas. They were very interested, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be opening their pockets and injecting billions into these projects just yet.

(L-R) Brian Hook, U.S. special envoy for Iran; Trump adviser Jared Kushner; Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; U.S. Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt and Israel’s U.S. ambassador Ron Dermer, at a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Yerushalayim. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu and Katz spoke of these plans with President Donald Trump’s emissaries, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. The Americans liked the idea and integrated it into their “deal of the century.” Katz and Netanyahu have already dubbed the plans “Tracks to Regional Peace.” These lines can create alternative trade routes that are faster and cheaper — and, most importantly, safer — than the Suez Canal. This would neutralize the Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz, because Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would be able to transport goods over land, quickly and more cheaply, for export to Europe and the rest of the world.

The Saudis want it, as do the Gulf states. Jordan knows that a large part of the roads and rail lines will pass through it, and so is also interested. The Saudis have already built a network of steel tracks from the border of Jordan and Saudi Arabia to Riyadh and the Persian Gulf ports, namely Dammam.

Israel has made a calculation that overland tracks and roads will save the Saudis and the Gulf nations trillions of dollars a year. If one-third of Saudi trade passes through Israel it will yield revenue of more than $300 billion a year.

The alternative land route is several times shorter and much safer. Ships that depart from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and sail to the Mediterranean through the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal pass over 3,720 miles. By contrast, the land route via Israel to the Haifa port is just 372 miles.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz in Abu Dhabi. (Israel Foreign Ministry)

Katz disclosed that already today, thousands of Turkish trucks arrive in Israel secretly, transported on massive ferries. They unload their cargo at Haifa port and from there, the merchandise crosses Israel to Jordan and then east on this route, as an alternative to the route via Syria, which has been blocked due to the unending war there. At the heart of the proposed initiative are two central elements: Israel as a land bridge between Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, and Jordan as a center for overland transport by train. Its rail links will be connected to Israel and to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe on the west, and to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Iran in the east and southeast, and to the Red Sea via Aqaba and Eilat.

According to Katz, this will create safer, shorter, faster, cheaper trade routes between east and west, especially in light of the Iranian threat on the sea routes in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea and the threat of pirates in the region. In addition to the economic contribution to the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian economies, the initiative will connect Israel to the region economically and diplomatically and will form a pragmatic camp in the region.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have been conducting secret talks on this plan, among dozens of other subjects, the main one being Iran. There are close ties between Yerushalayim and Riyadh, even if they are not discussed publicly. Saudis and others who come to Israel from Arab nations wear dark glasses and travel in cars with tinted windows. They like visiting Yerushalayim and enthuse over Tel Aviv. They visit Har HaBayis and the Islam Museum in the center of Yerushalayim.

Signs of Arab Softening

Israeli officials admit secretly that there are already clear signs of softening in many Arab nations that for years refused to even share a stage with Israelis. The Saudis might be leading the change, but they are not the only ones. Israeli representatives frequently visit Arab nations, and Netanyahu doesn’t miss an opportunity to meet with Arab and Muslim leaders, overtly or covertly.

Already two years ago, Saudi Arabia granted permission for Air India flights traveling between Israel and India to use its airspace, cutting two hours off flight time. Israeli merchandise is sold in Gulf states via Turkey and Jordan. Israeli cyber and technology companies registered abroad work in the Saudi market. In the near future, Saudi Arabia appears ready to grant entry to Arabs from Israel to work in the massive foreign worker force that numbers more than 10 million people. Most of these Arabs have graduated from Israeli universities with degrees in medicine, programming and engineering; some are blue collar workers.

At a recent U.N. session to condemn Hamas aggression toward Israel, Yerushalayim was surprised by Saudi Arabia. The ambassador, Abdullah bin Yahya al Mualimi, began with an attack on Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians — as usual. He then repeated his country’s traditional support for a two-state solution with a Palestinian capital in eastern Yerushalayim. But then he included a significant and heretofore unheard statement, noting that Saudi Arabia condemns the firing of rockets from Gaza at Israeli civilian targets. He even called on steps to achieve an immediate ceasefire.

Yitzchak Levanon, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said, “We saw open Saudi criticism, in the heart of the international stage, of Hamas firing at Israel, without any parallel condemnation of Israel’s air attacks in Gaza. That is something we have not yet seen from Saudi Arabia, and it has mustered up the courage to openly state a position far from the pan-Arab position. This was music to Israeli ears. This could not have been said in a forum such as the U.N. without a green light from the palace in Riyadh … and reflects the changes in the Middle East and the intensifying clash between Sunnis and Shiites.”

Levanon believes new winds are blowing in Riyadh, which is good news for Israel.

According to a position paper compiled by Yitzchak Gal, a researcher from Tel Aviv University, and an expert in trade and economic ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, there is potential for a significant spike in the Israeli GDP of more than $50,000 per capita within a decade if these trade ties are realized. It would vault Israel into the group of the 15 wealthiest countries in the world.

But beyond the economic ties is the matter of security cooperation.

Israel Faces a Trap

According to foreign reports, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states already today cooperate on security, intelligence and strategic areas, namely against Iran. Dr. Yoel Guzansky, who coordinated the handling of the Iranian issue on Israel’s National Security Council, says that “Israel is in a trap of sorts. On the one hand, together with the United States, we are cultivating — based on media reports — cooperation with Saudi Arabia against Iran. On the other hand, there isn’t enough awareness of the ramifications of this cooperation. There is near-complete disregard for what is happening in nuclear and missile development in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Today they are with us; what will be tomorrow? There’s no way to know.”

What Is Guzansky Afraid of?

The UAE has already built four nuclear reactors to generate electricity, he notes. The Emirates have pledged not to enrich uranium, but Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman declared last year that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will not hold off. That means there is potential for future danger in the event of regime change in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which he says cannot be ignored.

There is also a relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, whose nuclear program was largely paid for by the Saudis. The long-term fear is that Pakistan will send nuclear warheads to Saudi Arabia or will look away from the construction of a uranium enrichment facility. In the event that Iran goes nuclear, Saudi Arabia might ask the Pakistanis — who are likely to agree — to deploy nuclear warhead-bearing planes in Saudi Arabia. This should worry Israel.

Furthermore, he notes that there is some erosion in Israel’s military might. “The F-16s that the Emirates and Saudi Arabia have are more advanced than Israel’s F-16s. Saudi Arabia is now pressuring the U.S. to sell it the F-35, which Israel already has. When the Americans refuse some of these requests, the Saudis turn to China and Russia. It’s a delicate game,” Guzansky says.

He says there is a dilemma, with tightening relations on the one hand, and these massive weapons acquisitions, space technology development, purchases of spy satellites and the like, on the other. “Right now, [the Emirates] are not our enemies, but more radical regimes can take their place.”

A recent Israeli Foreign Ministry report indicates that Saudi Arabia is not likely to establish formal ties with Israel in the near future.

“After all, Saudi Arabia is a conservative state, the cradle of radical Islam,” Guzansky explains. “I don’t think they are ripe for a real change. It’s too complex. They are the guardians of the most important sites in Islam.”

Surveys conducted in Saudi Arabia show that a majority opposes expanding cooperation with Israel.

On March 26, 1979, then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin spoke at the ceremony to sign a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. R-L: Prime Minister Begin, U.S. Pres. Jimmy Carter and Egyptian Pres. Anwar Sadat. Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel.(SA’AR YA’ACOV/GPO)

But every radical declaration by the Iranians frightens the Arabs, who know that only Israel can actually help them against this mutual enemy. The Saudis realized this nine years ago, when they invited Mossad head Meir Dagan to their country. In 2016, there was a historic handshake between then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Saudi Prince Al Faisal. That year, retired Saudi General Anwar Eshki visited Israel as part of a delegation of academics and businesspeople.

In April 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman said in an interview that he recognizes Israel’s right to exist. In the coming year, more aspects of the bilateral ties are likely to be revealed, along with details on Israel’s ties with dozens of other Arab and Muslim states in the Middle East, Africa and farther.

Best of Frenemies

One nation that Israel wants good ties with — and the feeling is mutual — is Iraq. The two countries don’t share a border, and Iraq doesn’t have any special demands of Israel. Many Jews have lived in Iraq throughout history.

From time to time, diplomats from these two nations meet, but everyone knows that today, with Iraq under the control of Iran, it will not be able to develop independent policies regarding Israel. It is this desire for ties that made it difficult for Israel to launch attacks on Iranian bases in Iraq. But having no choice, they dispatched the aircraft, while at the same time conveying a contrite message that said, “You know why we have to do this; it’s for your good as well.”

In the last two years, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has released condolence messages to the Iraqi government, in Arabic; one was after the large bombing in Baghdad that killed dozens. Another Israeli message was sent after UNESCO declared ancient Babylonian ruins a World Heritage Site.

Very quietly, Iraqi Jews, including those from Israel, are making visits to places where their parents and grandparents lived for hundreds of years. Many Israelis of Iraqi descent maintain social ties with residents of their former cities. Social media topples all walls. Israel hopes that this secret dialogue will ultimately bear fruit, and that the day will come when the Iranians will stop posing an obstacle to such relations.

Netanyahu’s visit last year to the Sultanate of Oman revealed a bit of the change that has taken hold in the Middle East over the past decade. The fact that the visit was publicized on official channels, in coordination with the Sultanate and with photos of the two leaders, indicates that the secret ties that Israel is fostering behind the scenes with the Gulf states are ripe for public exposure, and perhaps even to move ahead another step.

Oman attained international prestige and marketed itself as an important regional player interested in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, it is interested in closer ties with the U.S. and trying to take advantage of the close relationship between Netanyahu and Trump. But Oman will not hurry to alter its relationship with Israel because, despite its fear of Iran, it maintains close ties with Tehran.

In this regard, it’s worth noting what Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah had to say after Netanyahu’s visit: “Israel is an existing fact in the Middle East, and everyone understands that. The world is also aware of this fact, and perhaps the time has come for it to treat it accordingly.”

We will soon hear lots about Israel’s developing ties with Dubai after that nation officially announced that it had invited Israel to participate in the international Expo 2020 exhibition there next year. It’s likely that many Israelis will want to visit the expo, and the leaders of Dubai have said they will not prevent them from doing so.

Ties between Israel and Morocco are also moving to the next level, especially since the Moroccans are beginning to suffer from the presence of Iranian terror near their borders. There has been talk of Netanyahu possibly paying an official visit to the country. Until then, thousands of Israelis flood the Moroccan tourist markets, and Moroccan businessmen have forged ties with Israeli companies. There are similar relations between Israel and Tunisia, where there is also a large Jewish community that is free to live according to its customs and religious practices. In some Arab countries there are already Israeli trade representatives, which serve as unofficial pseudo embassies.

The Invisible Blockade

All this notwithstanding, Israel still has not managed to cross the invisible blockade and bring the relationship with Arab nations into the open in a significant way. A few months ago, Netanyahu said, “We are in the process of normalizing relations with the Arab world, without, unfortunately, any progress being made with the Palestinians. The expectation always was that progress with the Palestinians would open the door to the Arab world for us. But with their refusal and the Arab terror, that hope has been buried. Perhaps the ties with the Arab world will create the conditions for development of ties with the Palestinians.”

In other words, Israel, like America, lives with the hope that the reverse direction might work. First build ties with the Arabs, and that will help resolve the Palestinian issue. However, for the time being, it’s not happening. While Israel is working toward normalization, there are elements in several Arab countries working against it.

The peace with Egypt and Jordan also hasn’t advanced much to date, and has done nothing for the Palestinian conflict. The main obstacle preventing this blockade from being broken is the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

Israel has a long history of ties with its Arab neighbors. This includes ties with Egypt, Jordan, the Maronite sect in Lebanon, Morocco, the Kurds, Iran until 1979, Turkey, the Christians in Southern Sudan and states in the Persian Gulf. These ties were usually secret, random and based on mutual enemies rather than mutual interests. But that is not what Israel wants. Rather, it is trying to foster open, normal ties between countries based on mutual interests. Regretfully that is not happening — not even with Egypt and Jordan, with whom Israel has signed peace agreements and exchanged ambassadors.

In recent years, with all that has been happening with the Iranian threat on the Sunni world, there has been a change. Many Arab countries have drawn closer to Israel in the hopes that it will help them in a moment of crisis, or help neutralize the Iranian threat.

Israel is in a Catch-22: If the Iranian threat disappears, that will be good for its national security, but bad for its attempts to forge ties with the moderate Arab world.

In conclusion, a few interesting statistics:

There are 193 states in the world. Thirty-two of them do not have diplomatic ties with Israel, among them 16 Arab or Muslim countries or countries with Muslim majorities. Mostly they do not recognize Israel’s existence due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and if they do recognize Israel, they want nothing to do with it. Among them are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Algeria. Besides those, there are three nations that are not necessarily Muslim, but have no relations with Israel: Bhutan, Bangladesh and the isolated dictatorship of North Korea, which trades with Iran and transfers weapons and technological know-how to Israel’s enemies.

There are also non-Muslim and non-Arab states with which Israel’s ties are unstable: Niger, Mali, and the Comoro Islands in Africa. Venezuela and Cuba fall into this category as well.

When you examine Israel’s ties with U.N. member nations, you see that Israel is categorically not recognized by only 32 of the 193 nations. That’s not bad at all.