The Mossad’s trailblazing role in Middle East peace – analysis

The immediacy of the coronavirus crisis is probably what moved the UAE and potentially soon Bahrain, Oman and others, across the finish line for peace deals.

MOSSAD DIRECTOR Yossi Cohen. (photo credit: FLASH90)
(photo credit: FLASH90)
The Mossad has always played an important role in Israel's shadow foreign policy with moderate Arab countries, and the announcement last week of a peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was no exception.
Imminent potential new deals about deals with Bahrain and Oman are also expected to involve the Mossad, and director Yossi Cohen has been in touch with top Bahraini officials about the next steps.
But if some of the public's focus has been on last-minute progress made by Cohen, the real story is that the spy chief has been hopping around moderate Sunni Arab countries for years.
It was Cohen and the Mossad’s secret visits and contacts that led to the 2017 announcement by Gadi Eisenkot, the former IDF chief of staff, that he was sharing intelligence with Saudi Arabia.
This announcement was in many ways as much of a geopolitical earthquake as the Israel-UAE peace deal because it was the first time that intimate Israeli-Saudi cooperation was publicized at the highest levels.
Former Israeli officials like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ex-national security adviser Yaakov Amidror have spoken about earlier meetings with Saudi officials in the US in 2016, but these were all kept secret.
In May 2018, former top Mossad official Haim Tomer told The Jerusalem Post that Israel and the Saudis could even potentially coordinate regime change plans against Iran, signaling continuing elevated relations.
Tomer would not reveal everything he knew about relations with the Saudis, but even this comment was telling and went farther than previous comments that spoke about vague converging interests.
In January 2019, Israel National Cyber Directorate Chief Yigal Unna predicted that the coming year would “make the maritime cyberspace more secure with friends all around the Mediterranean.”
It was unclear exactly which countries would be involved, but his statement appeared to hint at high-level cyber cooperation with moderate Sunni countries.
There are also reports that Israeli cyber powerhouse NSO Group and some of its former employees have helped UAE in various roles dating back to even before 2017.
The Post has learned from NSO sources that one of the reasons it probably has such strong backing from Israel’s Defense Ministry is that it serves as another conduit of creating lines of communication for Israel with moderate Sunni countries.
In July 2019, Cohen made a rare major public speech in which he explicitly stated that his spy agency had been behind much of the progress with the moderate Sunni Gulf countries.
SO MUCH of the crucial untold story is not just about what happened in recent weeks, but about Cohen’s (and his predecessors and others, like former foreign ministry director-general Dore Gold) years of work that led up to the point where relations between Israel and moderate Sunni states could come out in the open.
Yet, even this is only part of the story.
In the same July 2019 speech, Cohen caught some rare public criticism.
Going a large step further than taking credit for mere general positive trends, he said that the Mossad had clandestinely set the stage for “a renewal of ties with Oman and the establishment of foreign ministry representation” there.
Although Cohen’s work no doubt helped set the stage for Netanyahu’s visit to Oman in October 2018, Omani officials immediately denied in July 2019 that Israel had or was about to establish any kind of concrete diplomatic residence there.
So even in mid-2019, after all of the convergence between the Gulf states and Israel regarding combating Iran, jihadist terror and the sharing of cyber technology, there was still a significant gap which blocked the normalization process we are seeing develop rapidly before our eyes.
There are many other pieces to the story, but a major piece was Netanyahu’s February meeting with the leader of Sudan to start a process of normalization.
The Post learned that aside from giving credit to Netanyahu, Cohen would say that the success was a product of two main factors.
Cohen’s repeated efforts, which, until the final successful attempt, had not borne fruit and went largely unreported, were key in the efforts. The timing being ripe on the Sudanese side was another major factor.
And timing seems to have been key for the latest breakthrough with the UAE, or rather, making the peace push timed to the coronavirus era.
It is clear that the UAE's taking credit of Israel's decision to suspend annexation was critical to the deal. But as early as March, The Post learned that the coronavirus was bringing Israel and the UAE together.
Already on March 19, Channel 12 reported that Cohen had succeeded in bringing 100,000 test kits to Israel, with an estimated four million on the way.
The Post was the first to report that the kits were obtained from countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, though it could not reveal the identity of the countries at the time, which included Gulf states.  
Netanyahu publicly announced close Israeli-UAE cooperating to combat the coronavirus in June, but the seeds were planted back in March.
This means that the immediacy of the coronavirus crisis is probably what moved the UAE and potentially soon Bahrain, Oman and others, across the finish line.
There were also reports in mid-June that Cohen was in direct contact with top Gulf states to moderate their opposition to annexation.
These reports never made sense, unless Cohen was also in a position to offer something.
However, it now seems that even if it took some of the UAE and the US’s own initiative to work out the final formula for a peace deal, Cohen may have gone beyond trying to moderate opposition to annexation. He may also have explored other possibilities.
There is no question that many others were involved in last-minute herculean efforts to nail down the Israel-UAE deal and open the door to additional potential deals.
But two major factors which have not been fully understood in altering the face of the Middle East are how much groundwork Cohen and the Mossad set for this moment during the years beforehand, as well as how crucial it was that the spymaster seized the unique dynamics of the corona moment.