Clandestine – and creative – diplomacy

Israeli diplomats, military attachés and other officials have had to work in secret to secure Jerusalem.

Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In September 1967, soon after the Six Day War, the Ugandan military signed contracts to purchase $7 million in weapons from Israel.
Several years later, Idi Amin, an army officer, informed the IDF emissary in Uganda, Col. Baruch “Burka” Bar- Lev, that he was going to launch a coup against president Milton Obote.
Bar-Lev subsequently told Israeli instructors working with the Ugandan Air Force not to arm the planes in case the government wanted to use them against the coup plotters. “Bar-Lev ignored insistence that he refrain from meddling.
In fact, Bar-Lev extended his influence to the fate of officials and army officers.”
The story of Bar-Lev and Israeli relations with post-independence Uganda is one of many case studies included in the newly edited Israel’s Clandestine Diplomacies.The editors, scholars at the University of Durham and Norwegian University, seek to illustrate that Israel’s tactic of resorting to secret diplomacy, in which “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” has been a key part of the Jewish state’s foreign relations since its founding. This has “helped Jerusalem not only surmount its regional isolation, but also helped frame security agendas that pose equally complex and often damaging dilemmas among erstwhile foes.” The text is by academics but accessible to readers interested in Israeli history.
Israel has sought to form relations with minority groups in the Middle East, such as Kurds, Maronite Christians in Lebanon, Africans in South Sudan, and other groups fighting for independence or taking up arms against enemies of Israel, such as royalist forces in Yemen who fought Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Many of these relationships had to remain secret because these groups feared being associated with Israel. However, in some cases, Israel found itself working with people and groups that had nefarious reputations.
Uganda is a case in point. Although Bar-Lev likely did not know that Amin would become a murderous dictator, his work with the army officer who seemed keen on Israel was not a bright spot in diplomacy. Amin subsequently turned on Israel, showed himself to be an anti-Semite, and aided Palestinian hijackers.
The history of this “clandestine diplomacy,” the editors argue, dates back to pre-state days. For instance, in the 1930s, the Palestine Land Development Company was approached by Sheikh Mithqal Pasha al-Faiz, leader of the Bani Sakhr in Jordan. His tribe was one of the largest in the desert kingdom at a time when Amman had a population of only 10,000. He was “the largest landowner in the country, was heavily indebted, and found it difficult to make his vast land profitable. The Zionist officials reached out and sought to purchase around 35,000 dunams [3,500 hectares, or about 8,650 acres] in Jordan, with the intention of settling Jews there. Important officials such as Haim Arlosoroff and Nahum Sokolow, the head of the World Zionist Organization, were involved in the plans. King Abdullah of Jordan was brought into the mix. However, knowledge leaked out and the combined pressure of Arab nationalists on the one hand and the British on the other now prompted Abdullah to deny the very existence of the transaction.”
The book sheds light on a number of now-forgotten ups and downs of Israeli diplomacy. Most people assume that the Turkish-Israeli relationship was very strong until the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party in the last decade.
However, the reality is that Turkey initially recognized Israel in 1949, but relations darkened in 1956 after Israel’s war with Egypt. “Mounting anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world drove Turkey to downgrade diplomatic relations,” and Israel engaged in long-term covert or “back door” diplomacy to salvage the Turkish relationship.
Another case of an interesting relationship is that of Ireland. Although Dublin granted Israel a form of de facto recognition, it did not send diplomatic representatives, increasingly displaying strong support for the Palestinians. In 1993, Yasser Arafat visited Dublin and declared that he “had real friends in Ireland,” who had helped him during his years of terrorist struggle. Indeed, in 1995, Irish foreign minister Dick Spring visited Orient House in east Jerusalem, the unofficial headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in the city. Yet while the chapter written on Ireland’s dismal view of Israel is compelling, it is not clear exactly what the “covert” or “clandestine” aspect of the relationship is.
Subsequent chapters examine Israel’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa, secret negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights in the 1990s, and discussions between statesman Yossi Beilin and then-PLO official Mahmoud Abbas in Sweden in the early 1990s. This book excellently shows the work Israeli diplomats, military attachés and other officials have done to secure Jerusalem at least the bare minimum of influence in many countries where it has been difficult for Israel to work openly. As the editors note, “one should not, perhaps, exaggerate the extent of difficulties facing the Jewish state,” even today.
These difficulties, especially in the Muslim world, have forced Israel to think creatively. This absorbing read ultimately sheds light on some of the ideas Israelis have come up with for working in a hostile region.