By Chase Lacy
Rabat – The Gulf states are in the midst of combating terrorism, however they are fixated on regional geopolitical maneuvering with their sworn rival, Iran.
Namely, they are attempting to subvert Iran and its proxies: the Hezbollah network, Syria’s Assad regime, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and Shiite militias.
Kobi Michael of Tel Aviv University says even though Saudi Arabia drew up a 2002 peace initiative calling for Israel to cede all occupied territories, they are now willing to push the Palestinians to accept Kushner’s peace plan.
Though Saudi Arabia is one of the primary financiers of the Palestinian Authority, their patience and willingness to deal with Palestine is growing increasingly thin.
Israeli-Gulf normalization is mutually desirable. For open ties with the Gulf, Israel needs to agree to a plan for Palestine. The Gulf states, attentive to their citizens’ concerns about Palestine, for the same reason want a formalized peace agreement.
Khalil Sheheen, a political analyst in Ramallah, told Al Jazeera he believes the “reordering” of regional threats will come at the expense of Palestinians. For Arab states “the issue of normalization is no longer controversial.”
“But it is important to realize that the thawing of relations between Arab countries and Israel is not connected to bilateralness.” Instead it is a result of maintaining “hegemonic arrangements” and protecting their regimes.
Saudi-Israeli warming ties
Tension with Iran has caused Saudi Arabia to warm to Israel.
In 2017 the Israeli Foreign Ministry instructed its embassies, in cables that were later leaked, to lobby their host countries’ governments in support of Saudi Arabia over the Hariri debacle, in which Saudi Arabia was accused of having undue influence over Lebanon. The cables stressed Iran and Hezbollah’s role in “regional subversion.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University said he thought the cable was meant to go public. “Netanyahu’s aim was to make clear to the Saudis that we can help.”
Last November, Ayoub Kara, Israel’s Communications Minister, invited Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh to visit Israel. Shortly after the invitation, Gadi Eizenkot, Israel’s chief of staff, said that “Israel is prepared to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia on Iran.”
Last year former Saudi chief of intelligence Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, debated Efraim Halevy, formerly of Israel’s Mossad, about strategies for dealing with Iranian “provocations.”
This March, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), met US presidential advisor Jared Kushner on a US tour to discuss the Arab role in Middle East peace.
On the tour, MBS did not seek to publicly raise the issue of Palestine and Jerusalem. However, in an interview with the Atlantic he was asked about the rights of Israel to a nation state.
He answered, “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”
But nothing was as shocking as MBS’s incendiary statements at a March 27 closed-door meeting with several right-wing Jewish organizations, such as AIPAC, Stand Up for Israel (ADL), and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
Officials from all three organizations have donated millions to illegal Israeli settlement building, and lobbying against the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. BDS seeks to pressure Israel economically to provide equal rights and right of return to Palestinians.
According to several Israeli and US diplomats with knowledge of the meeting and a cable sent by the Israeli consulate, MBS said, “It is about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining.”
He continued, “In the last several decades the Palestinian leadership has missed one opportunity and the other and rejected all the peace proposals it was given.”
MBS further criticized Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and clarified that Palestine was not a priority for Saudi Arabia.
Promises vs. reality
Saudi Arabia, however, continues to support Palestine in rhetoric. In an opening statement April 15 at the Arab League Summit, Saudi’s King Salman announced the summit would be called the “Jerusalem Summit.”
Hanna Issa of the Islamic Christian Commission in Support of the Holy Sites said President Mahmoud Abbas had personally requested King Salman change the name to show Arab unity with Palestinians.
During the summit, King Salman announced large donation packages worth USD 150 million for the Islamic endowment in Jerusalem and USD 50 Million for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).
The summit issued a communique affirming the Arab league’s refusal to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that East Jerusalem is to remain the capital of Palestine.
Khaleel Assali of news website Akhbar al-Balad, said, “Jerusalem has become a word that everyone uses to show patriotism. We have heard so much of these words in the past and also millions have been committed in previous summits for Jerusalem, but we have not seen on the ground any changes as a result of these so-called donations.”
However, the Gulf states purportedly offered a deal to Israel in 2017 with only a poor overture to Palestinians.
The deal entailed that their states would end the prohibition of overflight rights for Israeli aircraft, establish direct telecommunication links, and ease trade restrictions. Israel, in exchange, would be required to stop constructing settlements in “certain areas” of the West Bank and allow more trade to enter Gaza.
The deal mentioned no right of return or the complete cessation of construction within settlement blocs.
Gulf economic ties to Israel
Israeli officials have made multiple clandestine trips to Gulf countries, notably the UAE. Israel’s energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, made a trip to Abu Dhabi and secured an office at the International Renewable Energy Agency, seen by some as a de facto Israeli embassy.
On Army Radio, Steinitz has said, “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries.” Steinitz noted Gulf states have particular interest in Israel’s surveillance technologies.
In 2014, the UAE signed a USD 100 million deal with a company called Verint Systems. The US-based company, which primarily conducts operations out of Israel, was to track data on the UAE’s telecom networks.
Israeli company NSO Group Technologies has also sold surveillance software to the UAE.
In another example, Shmuel Bar, the Israeli founder of a company, IntuView, that mines data to detect terrorist threats, was contacted by a Saudi official via Skype in 2015. The official said Saudi Arabia was interested in the company’s technology, but Bar would have to create an offshore company to obscure IntuView’s Israeli roots.
Bar fulfilled the Saudi’s request, and IntuView began surveillance to root out jihadis in Saudi Arabia. Later, he claimed, the work expanded to include surveillance on public opinions of the Saudi royal family.
Bar said he often meets with Saudis and officials from other Gulf states at conferences and private meetings. The only countries that Israel deems unacceptable to do business with are Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
“The Arab boycott,” said Bar, “doesn’t exist.”
When Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, was hacked in 2012, Israeli companies resolved the situation.
According to Erel Margalit, a member of the Knesset, some Israeli companies are involved with Arab states on an “ongoing” basis. These companies simply operate through offshore companies when needed.
The extent of this activity is apparent: an Israeli entrepreneur, Mati Kochavi, completed a USD 6 billion job to install security infrastructure (cameras, sensors, and license plate readers) in the UAE.
Kochavi’s company, AGT International, used Israeli engineers, many of whom originate from its intelligence services.
Kochavi himself managed the company from Switzerland and the US, however the day-to-day operations were conducted by another one of his companies, Logic Industries.
Israeli businesses operating clandestinely, but under the state’s approval in the Gulf, focus on desalination, infrastructure protection, cyber-security, and intelligence.
Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest private defense contractor, operates a subsidiary in New Hampshire which often welcomes customers from Kuwait, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia.
Questions in the media about Elbit’s operations arose when an American contractor, Christopher Cramer, who worked for Kollsman Inc, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems, was found dead outside a hotel in northwest Saudi Arabia on January 15, 2015.
Cramer was in Saudi Arabia to work on the thermal optical lenses for their missile systems. Cramer’s own Facebook post said that he was there to upgrade TOW missile launch systems and supervise live-fire demonstrations.
The Saudi police report ruled his death a suicide, claiming he leapt from his third story room balcony. However, according to the autopsy of forensic pathologist Michael Badan, Cramer had been acutely beaten before falling from the balcony.
Another example of these deals came when Israeli newspaper Maariv revealed in February 2018 that Israeli companies, Aeronautics and Albeit, have been supplying arms to the UAE, alongside drones to Egypt and Libya.
As long as the Gulf states seek to strengthen relations with Israel, sign contracts for technology purchases, and hold backdoor discussions with Israel or groups that fund its occupation of Palestine, then it is clear that they do not intend to stand by their brothers in the long run.
This is the second in a 5-part opinion series evaluating the conduct of MENA region states in upholding their commitments to Palestine. Read the first part about Egypt here.
Part 3 will investigate the nature of Lebanon and Jordan’s relationship with Israel.