Diplomatic Affairs: Approaching the Mideast crossroads

The US pushed Israel-Gulf ties, now those ties are also fueled by uncertainty over its regional policies

THE HEAD OF the Israeli delegation, Dana Benvenisti-Gabay, is seen during the opening session of a conference in Manama, Bahrain, earlier this week. Inset: A capture of a BDS website that ‘monitors normalization’ with Israel condemns Bahrain for hosting her. (photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED / REUTERS)
THE HEAD OF the Israeli delegation, Dana Benvenisti-Gabay, is seen during the opening session of a conference in Manama, Bahrain, earlier this week. Inset: A capture of a BDS website that ‘monitors normalization’ with Israel condemns Bahrain for hosting her.
(photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED / REUTERS)
It reads like something out of a spy novel.
A privately owned Challenger 604 business jet flew out of Ben-Gurion Airport for Amman on Tuesday night. There the plane sat on the runway for less than five minutes, before taking off for Riyadh.
Some 45 minutes later, the plane – whose flight records show that it has made a number of round-trip flights in recent months between Tel Aviv and Cairo – returned to Israel.
Haaretz’s Avi Scharf first reported this flight in a tweet on Wednesday morning. He also noted that US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was also in Riyadh at the same time.
Maariv’s intelligence reporter Yossi Melman picked up the thread.
“A mysterious flight to Saudi Arabia,” he tweeted, saying that the brief stopover in Amman was to “whitewash” the flight before taking off for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has long insisted that flights not fly directly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh, but rather land and take off again from a third country. Melman speculated that perhaps the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, or even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, was on the plane.
In days past, this type of speculation would be dismissed as over the top, the stuff of conspiracy theories. But today? Today these types of theories suddenly look more plausible. Why?
First, because of all the activity out in the open that has taken place in recent months between Israel and the Persian Gulf states. This ranges from Bahraini and United Arab Emirates cyclists participating in last year’s Giro d’Italia cycling competition in Israel, to Netanyahu’s public trip to Oman last October, to Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev’s visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi that same month, when she was in the UAE to watch Israel’s national judo team compete under its own flag in an international tournament there.
These types of gestures are numerous, and included another one this week – the participation of Dana Benvenisti-Gabay, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s counterterrorism department – at a two-day maritime and aviation conference in Bahrain aimed at dealing with Iranian threats in the Persian Gulf.
And all the activity above the surface bespeaks a great deal more taking place underneath the surface as well, activity continuously hinted at by Netanyahu. It’s like a water polo match – all the observer sees is what is taking place on top of the water, while underneath powerful legs are kicking and thrashing, making what is happening above the surface possible.
The second reason that theories about secretive senior Israeli official flights to Riyadh cannot be so easily dismissed today is the weakened US presence in the region.
According to Roie Yellinek, a doctoral researcher with expertise on China, the Gulf and Saudi Arabia at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a nonresident scholar at Washington’s Middle East Institute, “a situation where the US leaves/abandons the Syrian theater, and its low-key response to the attack on the Saudi oil installations, signals to the Persian Gulf states that they need to create new and stronger regional alliances, and that it is not possible anymore to rely solely on the United States.”
In that context – the need to immediately strengthen security cooperation in light of dramatic regional developments – a secret Saudi visit by Netanyahu or Cohen does not look as far-fetched as it may have seemed just a few months ago.
And while many have interpreted the incremental rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf States in recent years as very much something both led and inspired by the US, current moves in all likelihood stem from the feeling that the US is not as reliable a partner as it once was.
Over the past few years, decisions such as a Saudi Arabia’s green light to direct Air India flights between Tel Aviv and New Delhi over its airspace, positive comments toward Israel by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and an openness in the UAE to hosting various Israeli delegations were seen variously as either the results of requests by the US, or attempts by the Persian Gulf countries to find favor with the Trump administration.
The administration – pursuing a Mideast peace plan – wanted to see the Gulf States express an openness toward Israel. And the Gulf States, interested in ensuring a strong alliance with Washington – stronger than the one they had under the previous administration – were in turn willing to oblige by taking baby-steps with\toward Israel.
But now that equation might be changing, with the Gulf States wanting to deal with Jerusalem not because of US requests, but because they are concerned about America’s reliability, and feel the need to bolster alliances with others.
Yellinek, for instance, does not think that the invitation to Israel to attend the Bahrain conference was a result of US pressure. The participation of a Foreign Ministry representative there, he said, “is based on the recognition and understanding of both sides – and principally the Arab side – that this is not the time or place for disagreement between the sides, but, rather, to join hands” against the Iranian threat.
Yet, he said, independent overtures to Israel now are built upon the momentum in the ties that has developed over the years of Trump’s presidency.
“The atmosphere under Trump and his closeness with Netanyahu contributed to a situation where the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – with the exception of Qatar, which is isolated – worked closely with the Israeli leadership,” he said. But, he pointed out, this has not resulted in the acceptance of Israel by the leaders trickling down to the people.
“This does not mean that the people in those countries love us or accept our very existence, but the lack of democracy in these countries obviates the need for the people’s consent for every step the leadership takes.”
And this, he pointed out, is similar to the situation that exists between Israel and the two Arab countries with which it does have peace treaties – Egypt and Jordan – where the governments work closely together, but the peace between the peoples is “cold” at best.
Indeed, a published photograph of Benvenisti-Gabay sitting Monday at the conference in Manama, behind a nameplate reading “Israel” in English and Arabic, printed under the emblem of Bahrain, elicited some extremely sharp responses not only from Iran – its foreign ministry spokesman sharply condemned the invitation to Israel and said Bahrain only “calls itself Islamic” – but also from some Bahrainis themselves.
For instance, a group called the Bahraini Society Against Normalization with the Zionist Enemy posted the picture of Benvenisti at the conference on its Twitter account and wrote that the Bahraini people of all stripes see this image as a “knife stab” and are saddened that their country is being “desecrated” by the “feet of Zionists.”
It is clear that Bahrain’s leaders, as well as the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Jordan who also took part in the conference, were aware that Israel’s participation would stir up passions locally. It is also clear that, given the scope of the Iranian threat and their perception of recent American moves in the region, at this point they don’t really care.