It’s a new world — where Israel shares intelligence with the Saudis

Iran and the Saudis are putting pressure on Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri to either officially resign as prime minister (the Saudis) or remain in office to help legitimize Hezbollah (Iran).

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir address the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 19, 2017 (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI/DEFENSE MINISTRY/REUTERS)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir address the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 19, 2017
You could sense mouths dropping across the world on Thursday.
Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the head of the Israeli Army, had just said publicly in an interview with a Saudi journalist that he is ready to share (read: probably already has shared) intelligence with Saudi Arabia.
It is shocking, that a country which not that long ago was a mortal enemy of Israel – and still in many conversations, such as regarding the Palestinians, is ready to condemn Israel – could be on the receiving end of some of the Mossad’s and the IDF’s greatest secrets.
Maybe we are all still sleeping and dreaming? No, it is very real. And according to two top intelligence and national security experts, Ram Ben-Barak and Yaakov Amidror, this bombshell is far more a confirmation of a clear and continuous trend than might appear to the untrained eye.
Ben-Barak is the former deputy chief of the Mossad and the former director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
Amidror is a former national security adviser, major-general, and is currently at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.
Ben-Barak said Eisenkot’s announcement was “not a surprise. The Saudis are struggling against terror, Islamic extremism and Iran’s extending itself throughout the region. This worries us and them. When you have unity of enough interests, it is natural to work together – more on a partnering basis than just on one isolated interest.”
He said, “If we can stop someone or if we can give intelligence to them to stop [a common adversary]” and “also collect intelligence and work together on bigger things related to the Shi’ites and to processes related to Judea and Samaria,” these are all worthwhile endeavors.
Asked about reciprocation, the former deputy Mossad chief said, “Cooperation is always a two-way street,” explaining that Eisenkot’s statement should be taken to mean Israel is “ready to both give and receive. This is how it works with all intelligence organizations.”
Trump: Saudi Arabia has a “very positive” feeling toward Israel (credit: REUTERS)
Of course, this still leaves open what the intelligence-sharing parameters will be. Even with its closest allies, a country usually does not share every piece of intelligence.
Ben-Barak said that the “system for setting parameters of sharing is very organized and exact about what can be shared and how it can be shared.
It is not at the discretion of a lower- level agent. There are decisions about what is important and what is not. When information is shared it relates to something happening,” and to a goal that the state focuses on achieving.
In terms of how information is shared, he said that “sensitive information is usually given over orally,” as opposed to large amounts of less-sensitive intelligence that the US and Israel share on an automated, electronic basis. Still, Ben-Barak did not think that one could assume that the new level of publicly-endorsed intelligence cooperation meant that Israel would necessarily, for example, get the green light from the Saudis to fly through their airspace to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
He did not discount such a possibility if “relations get warmer over time,” but said that overflights were a “very advanced level” of cooperation.
Amidror echoed some similar messages, but also emphasized key points of his own.
He said, what was important about the event was not so much that Eisenkot said he was ready to share intelligence with the Saudis, but more importantly that Saudi Arabia had permitted or even sent one of its journalists to publicly travel to Tel Aviv to meet with the current IDF chief.
The former National Security Council chief said Saudis had met with other former top Israeli officials like Amos Yadlin, Dore Gold and himself (he met with former head of Saudi intelligence Turki bin-Faisal al-Saud in Washington, DC, last year), but not with current ones, at least in public. “Someone in Saudi Arabia understands that relations with Israel need to change... they have crossed the Rubicon,” he said.
He added that, “The IDF has never had a problem with giving intelligence to actors [who] are fighting with Iran or ISIS. Any actor in the world who comes to fight Iran and says I need something to fight them,” Israel would be likely to cooperate “to fight such a common enemy.”
Amidror agreed that Israel giving intelligence to the Saudis does not mean it has gotten something back, like the right to fly through Saudi airspace toward Iran. But he went even further, saying that “there could be a condition of exchanging intelligence, but not necessarily.”
Meaning, Israel helping another country fight Iran is its own reward for Israeli interests, possibly even without immediate reciprocity.
Neither Ben-Barak nor Amidror said that Eisenkot’s statement was directly connected to the current proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Lebanon, although the timing coincided closely with the conflict over former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri.
Iran and the Saudis are putting pressure on Hariri to either officially resign as prime minister (the Saudis) or remain in office to help legitimize Hezbollah (Iran).
Amidror said Hezbollah had used Hariri to make Lebanon “appear to be a normal state when really there is an organization there called Hezbollah without whom you can do nothing.”
He said Hariri’s move “had shown there is not really a state of Lebanon separate from Hezbollah... they have lost their camouflage.”
This was a view which Israel had long expressed and which, he said, the Saudis and Hariri’s move had now proven to be correct.
He added with some flare that if Hariri goes back to Lebanon, “he should have good life insurance.”
Likewise, Ben-Barak said he thought that Hariri faced “a serious threat” from Iran and Hezbollah and that the Saudis had not held him hostage, even if “there was Saudi pressure on him to do what he did.”
He said, “Hezbollah wants to be a legitimate part of the political process in Lebanon. In fact, Hariri’s father [Rafik Hariri, one of Lebanon’s previous prime ministers] disturbed them, and now the son has revealed their true selves – that they are not part of Lebanon. It is very embarrassing” for Hezbollah.
Ben-Barak was also unsure whether Hariri would really come back to Lebanon.
He said that the Saudis’ actions in the affair show “they are ready for conflict and not [for] compromise” with Iran.