Because Israel is quietly embracing the Gulf monarchies | news


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

The meeting has shown publicly the extraordinary fact that Israel, like Netanyahu was so eager to advertise, is getting the acceptance of a sort from the richest countries of the Arab world – even if the prospects for solving the Palestinian question old date are at historic lows. This unprecedented rapprochement was driven mainly by a shared animosity towards Iran and Donald Trump's new and disruptive policies.

The hostility towards Israel has been a distinctive feature of the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion or flight of over 700,000 Palestinians – which the Arabs call the Nakba, or catastrophe – which 39; have accompanied. Yet over the years, pan-Arab solidarity and the boycott of the "Zionist entity" have largely disappeared. The last Arab-Israeli war was in 1973. Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan are unpopular, but they lasted decades. The 1993 Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was a historic achievement – if ultimately disappointing -. And what is happening now with the Gulf states is an extremely important change.

Evidence is growing closer links between Israel and five of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – none of which have formal relations with the Jewish state. Trump highlighted this accelerated change in his first trip abroad as president – in the Saudi capital Riyadh – flying directly to Tel Aviv. The hopes of Saudi aid with its much acclaimed "agreement of the century" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have vanished ever since. Yet Netanyahu is trying to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. And there was also speculation about a public meeting between him and Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi crown prince who was widely accused of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. It would be a sensational and highly controversial moment, which is why the Saudis are frantically signaling that it will not happen. However, 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 disgust for Barack Obama. In the early years of the Arab spring, he infuriated the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates and alarmed Israel, abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and then expressed his support for the popular uprising in Syria and asked Bashar al-Assad to resign. In 2015, when the nuclear agreement with the United States was signed with Iran, it was vehemently opposed by Israel and most of the Gulf states. In September, Russia's military intervention in Syria marked the beginning of the end of the crisis for Assad. Tehran's firm support for its ally in Damascus and its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon – the "axis of resistance" for Iran – has been viewed with identical disgust in Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

"The Obama administration was hated by Saudi Arabia and Israel because it avoided both," a Saudi elder told me. An Israeli veteran made the same argument: "It was the feeling that we were looking at an American administration that was not so busy with traditional American friends. We had to make a common cause because it was the feeling to be left at the mercy of ourselves. Without wanting to, Obama has contributed very significantly to the accumulation of relations between us, the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis ".

Netanyahu's game plan is to promote relations with the Gulf and beyond, and therefore to marginalize and put pressure on the Palestinians. "What is happening with the Arab states has never happened in our history, even when we signed the peace agreements", is its carefully honed formula. "Cooperation in different ways and at different levels is not necessarily visible above the surface, but what is below the surface is much larger than in any other period." As Dore Gold, Netanyahu's former national security advisor, he elaborated with a smile, these words are "very carefully written to give a positive message without spilling the beans".

The priority for 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 famously described the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, as a "new Hitler". Netanyahu compared Obama's nuclear deal with the 1938 Munich Agreement – and after Trump had dropped out last summer, Netanyahu reported Israel's willingness to join an "international coalition" "against Tehran. "We were relieved to see Israel as an enemy that occupied the Arab countries," says an UAE analyst. "The reality now is that the Israelis are there, whether you like it or not. We have common interests with them – and it concerns Iran, interests, not emotions."

There is also a pragmatic recognition in the Gulf capitals of the advantages of security, technological and economic ties with an unequivocally powerful Israel, not only for their own interests, but also for the approval of the United States. Israel sees links with the Gulf as an important way to demonstrate its influence in Washington. "It is doubtful that the scope of (US) aid to Arab countries could have been supported without the support of Aipac (the main pro-Israel lobby group) and Jewish organizations," suggests Eran Lerman, former deputy head of the Security Council national of Israel.

None of this means that the Palestinian problem has gone away. The "normalization" (of relations with Israel) remains a dirty word for millions of Arabs, which is why the Gulf autocratic leaders fear the popular opposition to their new intimacy with Netanyahu. Formally, each state of the GCC remains faithful to the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which offers the recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. But even this is much more than Netanyahu will ever accept: he will only consider a Palestinian "less-state" and openly refuses to dismantle the illegal settlements that divide the West Bank into disconnected enclaves. The many Israeli critics of Netanyahu, angry at the corruption allegations he is facing as next month's elections, have complained that he is exaggerating both the Iranian threat and the meaning of his Gulf diplomacy, completely ignoring the existential crisis in the own courtyard of Israel. inability to make peace with the Palestinians.

NThe etanyahu meeting with the Saudis and emirates in Warsaw was not the first dramatic public sighting of this evolving Middle Eastern reality. Last October, the Israeli prime minister held talks in Muscat, the capital of Oman, with his ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The following day, his Likud party colleague, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, was visiting Abu Dhabi in the 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 speeches at the elegant Bait al-Baraka palace. The prime minister, in a blue suit and tie, saw the pleasantries exchanged with the sultan, in a turban and a traditional white dishdasha robe. The wife of the Israeli leader, Sara, was present with other members of her 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 most important judo team participated in a tournament, he cried while Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel (the Hebrew words speak of desire for Zion) was played. He then visited the opulent Sheikh Zayed mosque, in memory of the founder of the United Arab Emirates, a loyal supporter of the Palestinian cause. These two Israeli ministerial visits to the Gulf capitals have given a strong impetus to the impression of dramatic changes in the region's alliances.

But when news of Netanyahu's visit to Oman emerged, it was a reminder of the risks of a negative reaction. Six Palestinians were killed and 180 wounded by snipers from the Israeli army on the border with the Gaza Strip, where weekly protests now challenge the blockade imposed on the territory by Israel since 2007.

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

Palestinian demonstrators on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, October 2018. Photography: Mohammed Saber / EPA

"Our [Gulf] Arab brothers … they stabbed us in front and behind, abandoning us politically as we hugged Israel, "Palestinian activist Kamel Hawwash complained." Israeli flags may soon be flying in the skies of some Gulf states as they push the Palestinian leadership to accept a peace agreement & # 39; unacceptable. "It described" nauseating images of a radiant … Netanyahu – the head of an apartheid state, with a load of Palestinian blood and more Arab blood on his hands – to be welcomed … by the suffering sult of the # 39; Oman ".

Netanyahu was not, in fact, the first Israeli leader to visit Muscat. Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin met with Qaboos in 1994, as well as his successor Shimon Peres. But in the mid-1990s the Oslo peace process, although imperfect and already stumbled, was still pursued by Israel and by the Palestine Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat. It was still – almost – possible to believe in a happy end to the most intractable conflict in the world. On the day of today, on the contrary, there have been no peace talks between Israel and the PLO since 2014, when the Obama administration has finally thrown in the towel. This is a very significant difference.

But despite these recent flashes of advertising, clear evidence of Israeli ties with Gulf states is still rare – because they remain largely hidden.

The connections are more visible with the United Arab Emirates, where Israel uniquely has an official diplomatic presence at the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi, although both countries point out that they have no relations bilateral. Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Labor Party, lectured there last December. It is believed that Netanyahu met with Emirates leaders in Cyprus in 2015 to discuss how to deal with Iran. But secret contacts between the two countries were routine starting in the mid-1990s – some of which were recorded in US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. The Emirates "believe in Israel's role in their perception of Israel's close relations with the United States, but also in their feeling that they can count on Israel against Iran", an Israeli diplomat observed in 2009, adding that in general the Gulf Arabs "believe Israel can function magically".

These "below-the-ground" relationships suffered a severe blow in 2010 when a successful Mossad team murdered Hamas Mahmoud al-Mabhouh's agent in a Dubai hotel. Mabhouh was the link between Hamas and armaments with Iran. The Emirates have forbidden anyone identified as an Israeli to enter the country, even if they were traveling with a foreign passport. But it was not long before they embarked on discreet diplomatic and commercial relations. "In these cases you simply have to keep your head down and wait for everything to end," said an Israeli business man based in Switzerland. In 2013, Israeli president Shimon Peres spoke from Jerusalem via satellite to 29 foreign ministers from Arab and Muslim countries attending a conference in Abu Dhabi.

The Israelis have quietly participated in joint military exercises with the forces of the United Arab Emirates, both in the United States and in Greece, starting in 2016. Last year the military personnel of the United Arab Emirates visited an Israeli air base for examine the operations of US-made F-35 fighters, although this was denied by Israel. Clandestine cooperation is believed to include Israeli surveillance of Iran intelligence and the sale of Israeli drones used in the war in Yemen.

Israel's alliances in the Persian Gulf

But the clearest evidence of overlapping interests between the Gulf and Israel has come in occasional public statements by Gulf officials. In the reign of the island of Bahrain, where the Sunni monarchy Al Khalifa oppresses the Shiite majority and protests were crushed by the Saudi intervention in 2011, the foreign minister was sentenced last year when he spoke of the law of Israel to defend itself after Iranian missiles were launched from Syria. On social media in the Arabic language, opponents of normalization exploded in contempt. But at the end of 2017, when Trump announced the controversial decision to transfer the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, The foreign minister of Bahrain tweeted: "It is not useful to fight the United States for collateral problems while we fight together the clear and present danger of the fascist Islamic Republic Theo-Fascist". According to some rumors, the capital of Bahrain, Manama, could be the next destination of Netanyahu's GCC.

Qatar, the non-conformist of the peninsula, has long behaved in a more independent way, and especially since a coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt has imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017, to put pressure on on its support for Islamist groups and its perceived tolerance for Iran. But in recent years Doha has played an increasingly public role in the mediation between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, with the emissary from Qatar delivering suitcases full of millions of dollars in cash to pay official salaries and alleviate the 39; worsening of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza resulting from its blockade by Israel. Qatar is criticized by the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, for having legitimized Hamas, its Islamist rival.

Also the Oman goes very much in agreement with the Saudis and the Emirates, because it has always had friendly relations with Iran, suggesting that Netanyahu's trip should have sent a message to Tehran. The sources of the Oman believe, however, that the Sultan's invitation was to publicize his pro-Israeli credentials in Washington, where Trump's national security team is suspicious of the ties of the Oman with the Islamic Republic. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, later revealed that he had been warned in advance of Netanyahu's trip and accused Israel of trying to cause glimpses in the Gulf.

Fthe ear of Iran, above all, is what brought Israel and the Gulf states together. Tehran's suspicion dates back to the 1979 Iranian revolution, but has intensified over the past two decades. The invasion of the US-led Iraq in 2003 – which has greatly increased the influence of Iran in the region by removing a long-standing enemy, the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein – is arrived a year after the exposure of a secret enrichment facility for uranium revealed that Iran had not abandoned its nuclear ambitions. This sharpened 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 appearance of a "Shiite crescent" extending from Damascus to Tehran via Baghdad, where the Shiite majority of Iraq had been authorized by Saddam's removal. The assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 involved Syria and the Shia organization supported by Iran Hezbollah. In January 2006, Syria's Bashar al-Assad met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In December 2005, at the summit of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation in Mecca, Ahmadinejad had used a speech to deny the Holocaust – described by an observer as "a brazen one-upmanship act that left Al Saud [Saudi Arabia’s ruling family] mortified and unable to respond ".

The key turning point was the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The 34-day conflict marked a radical change 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 "wrong adventure". The Saudis and the Israelis had a "common interest in treating a serious coup by Hezbollah and Iran," recalled Daniel Kurtzer, who had been US ambassador to Israel until the previous year. The officially authorized Saudi clerics have crushed Hezbollah, while the opponents of the rulers of Saudi Arabia "have taken over the war to highlight the caution, the immobility, the impiety and – in some cases, the ; illegitimacy – of the Saudi regime ", concluded a later study. In August, Assad insulted the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as "half-men" because of their hostility towards the Lebanese militias.

French UN peacekeepers pass a billboard showing the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini following the Israel-Hezbollah war in southern Lebanon, September 2006

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

Secret diplomacy between Israel and pro-Western Arab states has since intensified. In mid-September 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveled to the Jordanian capital, Amman, to meet Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador in Washington DC, known as "Bandar Bush" in because of his close ties with the presidential family. He was now national security adviser to King Abdullah. Back in Riyadh, the Saudis were furious when news of the meeting leaked out – as a former senior Israeli intelligence official told me – and denied that it had taken place. Publicly, Olmert said only that he was "very impressed with various moves and statements related to Saudi Arabia". Nor was he referring to meeting Bandar when he published his memoirs a decade later. (Israel's clandestine relations with Arab countries are still considered a matter of national security by military censorship authorities and a ministerial commission that monitors publications serving and former officials and politicians.)

One of the key players of the Israeli side was the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who was given a proactive alliance strategy with Arabs and other partners, partly as a means to allow Israeli assassins of Iranian scientists and sabotage of nuclear Tehran program. "Israel and the Gulf states were in the same boat," observed David Meidan, who ran the international department of the Mossad.

"All of a sudden the Mossad was teaching Farsi," a former intelligence official marveled. It was reported at this time that a meeting had been convened in the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba between Dagan, Bandar and the head of the Jordanian intelligence who decided to "build and accelerate intelligence exchanges" to cope to Iranian threats. The conspicuous presence of Dagan's successor Yossi Cohen – nicknamed "the model" because of his fashionable clothes – together with Netanyahu in Muscat last October may have been destined to send a signal not so subtle to the Iranians on the Israeli access to the Gulf capitals.

A former UAE diplomat told me that the threat from Iran today has a unifying effect comparable to the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990, which led to a previously unacceptable US 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 it would be very welcome, because we need their equipment and their military technology."

Jamal al-Suwaidi, the founder of the UAE Center for Strategic Studies and Research supported by the government, said more explicitly: "The Palestinian cause is no longer at the forefront of Arab interests, as it has been for decades; has abruptly lost priority in light of the challenges, threats and problems afflicting the countries of the region ". Similarly, he added, the issue of Israel is not comparable to the "threats posed … by Iran, Hezbollah and terrorist groups".

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

In addition to the shared contempt for Iran, the Gulf states and Israel have been united by a common hostility towards the Islamist parties. The media in Arabic and English associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey and Qatar regularly expose and touch the UAE's ties with Israel. Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, is an important source for these stories, as is the Middle East Eye website in London. The Emirates respond by recalling that the first Israeli mission in the Gulf was actually opened in Qatar, in the post-Oslo honeymoon of 1996. (Israeli representative offices in Qatar and Oman closed after the outbreak of the second intifada, or revolt Palestinian, in 2000, but discreet ties continued).

Many important developments in the evolving relationship between Israel and the Gulf have not been reported because they are masked by contradictory public positions – and sometimes by real lies. In December 2008, when about 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza operation of the Israeli operation, the Saudis publicly criticized Israel. Shortly thereafter, however, Riyadh appeared awaiting further Israeli military action against Hamas, in the form of air strikes against Iranian arms convoys in Sudan headed for Gaza. The leaked American cables have shown that the Israelis have launched a diplomatic campaign to stop the delivery of weapons. When that failed, it launched long-distance launches across the Red Sea in Sudan at the beginning of 2009, but crucially provided a prior notification to the Saudis, according to informed sources.

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

Ithe trade in sraeli with the gulf states is currently estimated at $ 1 billion a year, although there are no official statistics available on both sides. The potential, however, is vast: in technology, in particular cyber security, irrigation, medical supplies and the diamond industry, among other things, it could reach $ 25 billion. Year, according to a new detailed study.

Israeli businessmen using foreign passports regularly fly to the Arab Emirates, usually on commercial flights via Amman. "This is an enormous amount going on," says the Israeli representative of a multinational company that travels to the Arab states with a European passport.

AGT International, owned by Israeli Mati Kochavi, has provided $ 800 million worth of electronic enclosures and surveillance equipment to protect the borders and oil fields of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE officials have described it as a non-political decision motivated by national security interests. In 2014, Haaretz made headlines when he first discovered a mysterious private weekly flight from Tel Aviv, via Amman, to Dubai. Today, direct flights between the Gulf and Israel, although still unexplained publicly, are frequently reported on social media. Israeli companies operate in the United Arab Emirates through companies registered in Europe. The bills of lading are produced by an intermediate country, often Jordan or Cyprus.

Like the Emirates, the Saudis have quietly hired Israeli companies, especially in the field of security. An Israeli company was a subcontractor of the hi-tech barrier built since 2014 by the European defense giant EADS along the border of the kingdom with Iraq, revealed in an interview with a senior Israeli defense veteran.

In 2012, when hackers violated the computer system of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, Israeli companies were called. Reportedly, Israel sold drones to Saudi Arabia via South Africa, but denied selling its "Iron Dome" system to defend the kingdom from Houthi rebel missiles backed by Iran in Yemen. In 2018 Israeli media were authorized by military censors to report that Israeli and Saudi chiefs of staff had met at a Washington conference for commanders of allied US armies. The Saudis have 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. Photography: Reuters

Intelligence cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states is even more secretive, although Israeli politicians and officials occasionally refer. At the end of 2017, the chief of staff of the Israeli army made the news when he offered to share information on Iran with Saudi Arabia, noting that their countries shared "many common interests" . Western sources confirm the existence of such cooperation. "Members of the Israeli intelligence who went to these countries met the leaders," said a former US diplomat. "They know each other pretty well." Obama's first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, reportedly "knew that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were … working together behind the scenes with the Mossad to thwart the Iranian influence."

Unofficial Saudi spokesmen say that cooperation with Israel is limited to the issues of Iran and anti-terrorism – and they complain that the Israelis exaggerate its reach for propaganda purposes. As a Saudi journalist well connected tweeted, with typical contemptuous: "The fake non-existent collaboration between the # Saudi / GCC and #Israel states has become a trend in Western media circles and thinktank." Foreign governments close to both countries believe that the two maintain an emergency line for emergencies and are in regular contact. "There is now contiguity between Israelis and Saudis," says a Western intelligence source. "Hai effettivamente il tipo di relazioni di sicurezza tra i paesi che esistono quando condividono un confine. Ci sono cose pratiche che devono essere risolte, così si finisce con una relazione di routine che può creare più contatti senior e una prospettiva più strategica da entrambe le parti ".

È un segreto abbastanza aperto. Nel 2013, Bandar bin Sultan, che allora dirigeva l'Intelligenza saudita, incontrò l'allora capo del Mossad, Tamir Pardo, per quello che una fonte inglese di alto livello descrisse come una "cena lunga e sbronza" in un hotel di Knightsbridge. "Non c'è mai stata una cooperazione così attiva tra i due paesi, in termini di analisi, intelligenza umana e intercettazione sull'Iran e movimenti leali ad essa come Hezbollah, Houthi e le unità di mobilitazione popolare irachene", una newsletter specializzata nel settore dell'intelligence riportata nel 2016 Si diceva che i funzionari sauditi fossero "contenti come un pugno".

Da parte saudita, tuttavia, ci sono lamentele sul fatto che la relazione sia disuguale. Israele, si dice, non ha sempre risposto alle richieste di intelligence, anche se inviate tramite gli Stati Uniti. E ci sono davvero indicazioni di un dibattito interno in Israele sul valore dei legami con il regno. Le sue sofisticate capacità di sorveglianza non sono eguagliate da ciò che i sauditi hanno da offrire, sia che si tratti di conoscenza delle tribù yemenite o degli arabi nella provincia khuzestina iraniana, secondo un israeliano con una lunga esperienza nel trattare con Riyadh.

C'è anche ancora una mancanza di fiducia tra le due parti. "Posso capire che gli israeliani non avrebbero dato informazioni sensibili ai sauditi perché non potevano essere sicuri che i sauditi avrebbero protetto la fonte – e questo avrebbe creato un serio problema di controspionaggio", rifletté un altro veterano dell'intelligence. "Non sono partner naturali. Hanno culture dell'intelligence molto diverse. Gli israeliani sono di classe mondiale e i golfo non lo sono. Gli israeliani non entrerebbero in una relazione a meno che non ottengano un dividendo adeguato ".

Tegli sviluppò legami tra Israele e il Golfo ottenendo un significativo impulso dall'arrivo di Trump alla Casa Bianca – sebbene i primi piani statunitensi per un incontro tra Netanyahu, l'MBS dell'Arabia Saudita e il principe ereditario degli Emirati, Mohammed bin Zayed, non si materializzarono. Ma la tendenza era già chiara sotto Obama. I segni dell'approfondimento delle relazioni tra Arabia Saudita e Israele si sono moltiplicati quando il re Salman è salito al trono nel 2015, e ancora di più dal momento che MBS – che è stato profilato dall'intelligence israeliana agli ordini di Netanyahu – è stato promosso principe ereditario.

Nel 2016 Israele ha dato il via libera all'Egitto per trasferire in Arabia Saudita le isole del Mar Rosso di Tiran e Sanafir, alla foce del Golfo di Aqaba. Un lobbista saudita, Salman Ansari, ha chiesto una "alleanza collaborativa" con Israele per aiutare il progetto Vision 2030 di MBS per la riforma economica e la diversificazione. Entrambi i paesi hanno dovuto affrontare "continue minacce da parte di gruppi estremisti … direttamente sostenuti dal governo totalitario dell'Iran", ha affermato. Il progetto della megacity Neom da $ 500 miliardi, vicino ai confini di Giordania, Egitto e Israele, ha suscitato un forte interesse israeliano. Lo stretto di Tiran, il cui blocco dal presidente egiziano Abdel Nasser ha innescato la guerra del 1967, ora affrontato un futuro più luminoso, riflette il commentatore Abdelrahman al-Rashed, "uno dove prevalgono pace e prosperità".

La decisione incendiaria di Trump nel dicembre 2017 di spostare l'ambasciata degli Stati Uniti in Israele da Tel Aviv a Gerusalemme, violando un consenso internazionale di vecchia data, inizialmente ha incontrato una risposta muta a Riyadh. L'ultimo "accordo" del presidente per risolvere il conflitto israelo-palestinese è stato discusso dal genero Jared Kushner con MBS. Fughe successive hanno indicato un ruolo chiave per i sauditi nel fare pressione sui palestinesi. E quando il principe ereditario ha fatto un viaggio di tre settimane negli Stati Uniti la scorsa primavera, ha trasmesso segnali ancora più forti sulle sue intenzioni verso Israele, dicendo all'Atlantico che i palestinesi dovrebbero accettare il piano di Trump o "zittire e smettere di lamentarsi" di un problema che non era più una priorità rispetto al confronto con l'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

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