Frontlines: Israel's covert diplomacy

Netanyahu says one of the new Mossad head’s primary tasks will be cultivating ties with countries with whom Israel has no diplomatic relations.

Incoming Mossad director Yossi Cohen (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Incoming Mossad director Yossi Cohen
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The prime minister talks about it in veiled hints. Diplomats discuss it in hushed tones.
Commentators speak of it without knowing many details.
Israel’s ties with the non-radicalized Sunni countries: Are they Israel’s secret ace in the hole, or a good example of “Isra-bluff,” more smoke and mirrors than substance? Two recent announcements have brought this issue somewhat in from the cold.
The first was the announcement last month that Israel would open a mission in Abu Dhabi to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) there. And the second was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement this week that his current national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, will in January take over as the 12th head of the Mossad.
Both events pull the curtain up – if just a little – on the status and importance of the secret side of the country’s diplomacy.
Although both Israel and United Arab Emirates took pains to stress that the opening of an Israeli office in Abu Dhabi accredited to IRENA does not signal an upgrade in Israel ties with the UAE, that the Israeli flag will be flying in an office in that Persian Gulf country is not an insignificant occurrence.
It is significant because Israel has never had any type of presence in the country before – unlike Oman, Qatar, Morocco and Tunisia, where it has had trade offices in the past that have since long been moth-balled.
It is significant because it is hard to believe that the UAE would have taken such a step without a wink and a nod from Saudi Arabia. And it is also significant because of the timing.
IRENA has been housed in Abu Dhabi since 2009, and since that time Jerusalem has been interested in opening an office accredited to it.
That it happened precisely now is not only because of the efforts of Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold, but also because of the confluence of interests that exists between Israel and some of the Arab states in the region – namely concern over the twin threat of Iran and radical Sunni Islam. In dealing with these threats, Israel has much to offer in terms of intelligence and technology, and these countries – as everyone from Netanyahu downward hint at – are eager to tap into it.
There have been some broad-stroke signs of a change in recent months. One came in June, when Gold shared a platform at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, just prior to when he took his position at the Foreign Ministry, with a retired major-general in the Saudi armed forces, Anwar Eshki, with whom – it was then revealed – he held back-channel talks in the past. And those talks would not have taken place had the Saudi government not countenanced them.
Another sign came last month when a Kuwaiti journalist, Saleh al-Shayeji, wrote in the Kuwaiti government daily Al-Anba that “Israel is not our enemy.”
“The first step towards Arab reform is discarding the idea of pan-Arabism or of [a single Arab] nation, which reality has proven false and invalid, and the indications of its invalidity are [much] more numerous than the illusionary [proof] of its validity,” he wrote in the mass circulation Kuwaiti newspaper. “Let’s take our own country, Kuwait, as an example,” he wrote, according to a Middle East Media Research Institute translation of the piece. “Is Israel an enemy [of Kuwait]? Has it [ever] invaded it, fought it or killed its citizens? The answer to all these questions is no!! So why does Kuwait regard Israel as an enemy, while it regards Iraq – which did invade and occupy it – as a friend, an ally, a [good] neighbor and a sister!? “In sum, Israel is not the Arab’s enemy, and the Arabs must all free themselves of the pan-Arab complex and take their own independent steps and decisions, far from the delusion of the single [pan-Arab] nation!!” Though there is a huge gap between the words of one journalist and government policy, that such a piece appears in a mainstream paper in Kuwait is telling. It was also mentioned by Netanyahu recently when he briefed journalists in Paris and spoke of Israel’s relations with the rest of the world, arguing that these ties are not as bad as they are often perceived or presented.
Indeed, expanding Israel’s ties with the Arab world has emerged as one of Netanyahu’s broad ideas for breaking the logjam with the Palestinians, broaching this in a speech at the UN General Assembly in 2014.
“ I believe we have a historic opportunity,” he said, laying out a new paradigm for the diplomatic process. “After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that together, we and they face many of the same dangers, and principally, this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership, one that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.
“I believe the partnership between us can also help facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “Now, many have long assumed that an Israeli- Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days, I think it may work the other way around, namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace. And therefore, to achieve that peace, we must look not only to Jerusalem and Ramallah but also to Cairo, to Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere.”
Although the idea sounds good on paper, it has proven extremely difficult to translate into reality. While many realize that there is an overlap of interests because of terrorism and Iran and extremism, and while it is clear that the Arab states would be interested in a different type of relationship based on cooperation in dealing with those issues, the Palestinian issue has up until now placed clear limits on the level of that cooperation, and fueled an unwillingness of the Arab states to even make the existence of that cooperation open.
But working on that issue, looking beyond Jerusalem and Ramallah to Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere will – as Netanyahu said Monday in announcing Cohen as the new head of the Mossad – be part of his job description.
It was telling that Netanyahu delineated this task as one of the main functions of the spy agency. The Mossad, he said, carries out three primary functions: an operational one, an intelligence gathering one and also a covert diplomatic one.
In addition to its operational and intelligence gathering roles, he said, “it is also an agency that frequently paves the way to diplomatic relations, especially with countries with which we do not have official ties. In appointing the next head of the Mossad, I took into account these three components. The operational side: The Mossad will continue to build up our strength and foil threats to the security of the state and it will do so through actions and operations that are best left unspoken about. The intelligence side: The Mossad must adapt its capabilities to the age of cyber and advanced technologies. It must continue to be among the best intelligence agencies in the world.”
And, he added, “whether on the operational or the intelligence side, the Mossad will continue to assist me, as prime minister, develop diplomatic links around the world, including with Arab and Islamic states.”
Cohen, fluent in Arabic and also a close foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu over the last two years who has run interference for him with governments around the world, is well positioned – from Netanyahu’s perspective – to carry out that third role.
Cohen’s selection is a sign that some of the country’s most important diplomatic steps – diplomatic steps that the prime minister views as central to the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process – will be taking place deep in the shadows.