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Update from AIJAC

June 18, 2015
Number 06/15 #03

This Update leads with some new revelations about the extent to which Israel and Saudi Arabia are cooperating in the face of shared concerns about Iran. It also includes some new discussion about Gaza realities and the problems of reconstruction there. 

First up is a report of a meeting in Washington between Amb. Dore Gold, just named Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and senior Saudi official and former General Anwar Majed Eshki. Not only did the two men share a public stage, publicly shake hands and offer very similar analyses of the Iranian threat, but revealed that the two states have previously held five secret bilateral meetings to discuss this threat. The article, by American investigative journalist Eli Lake, explores the various ways the two countries, once bitter enemies and still lacking any formal diplomatic recognition, have been drawn together by Iran's recent expansionist behaviour and US policy toward this. For this important article in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up is American journalist and author Michael Totten, who attempts to put the Washington meeting and more general rapprochement between Jerusalem and Riyadh into greater historical and geopolitical context. He says that views change, that Saudi Arabia has no inherent reason to view Israel as an enemy or even a rival, and that polls show Saudi citizens now view Israel as less of an enemy than Iran. He notes that while the Saudis doubtless find Israel distasteful, the same is true of Riyadh's feelings toward long-time ally, the US, and he also discusses the realities of Saudi demands that Israel adopt the "Arab Peace Plan" the Saudis began pushing in 2002. For Totten's insightful thoughts in full, CLICK HERE.

Finally, an update on the situation in Gaza comes from Times of Israel Palestinian Affairs correspondent Elhanan Miller, who is interviewed by British academic Alan Johnson. Miller explains that while the situation in Gaza is indeed very dire, this is not because, as is so often implied, the Israel blockade is preventing construction supplies entering the Strip, but because destroyed homes are not being rebuilt for other reasons. The two also discuss the possibility of an "Autumn reset" in the form of an Israeli peace offering, possibly based in part on the 2002 Arab peace plan. For this enlightening exchange between Miller and Johnson, CLICK HERE. More on Israel's approach to Gaza and realities of the so-called "blockade"  comes from the civil head of COGAT, Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories , Col. Grisha Yakubovich, in an interview with CNN.

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Israelis and Saudis Reveal Secret Talks to Thwart Iran

 

Since the beginning of 2014, representatives from Israel and Saudi Arabia have had five secret meetings to discuss a common foe, Iran. On Thursday, the two countries came out of the closet by revealing this covert diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Among those who follow the Middle East closely, it's been an open secret that Israel and Saudi Arabia have a common interest in thwarting Iran. But until Thursday, actual diplomacy between the two was never officially acknowledged. Saudi Arabia still doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist. Israel has yet to accept a Saudi-initiated peace offer to create a Palestinian state.

It was not a typical Washington think-tank event. No questions were taken from the audience. After an introduction, there was a speech in Arabic from Anwar Majed Eshki, a retired Saudi general and ex-adviser to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Then Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who is slotted to be the next director general of Israel's foreign ministry, gave a speech in English.

While these men represent countries that have been historic enemies, their message was identical: Iran is trying to take over the Middle East and it must be stopped.

Eshki was particularly alarming. He laid out a brief history of Iran since the 1979 revolution, highlighting the regime's acts of terrorism, hostage-taking and aggression. He ended his remarks with a seven-point plan for the Middle East. Atop the list was achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs. Second came regime-change in Iran. Also on the list were greater Arab unity, the establishment of an Arab regional military force, and a call for an independent Kurdistan to be made up of territory now belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Gold's speech was slightly less grandiose. He, too, warned of Iran's regional ambitions. But he didn't call for toppling the Tehran government. "Our standing today on this stage does not mean we have resolved all the differences that our countries have shared over the years," he said of his outreach to Saudi Arabia. "But our hope is we will be able to address them fully in the years ahead."

It's no coincidence that the meetings between Gold, Eshki and a few other former officials from both sides took place in the shadow of the nuclear talks among Iran, the U.S. and other major powers. Saudi Arabia and Israel are arguably the two countries most threatened by Iran's nuclear program, but neither has a seat at the negotiations scheduled to wrap up at the end of the month.

The five bilateral meetings over the last 17 months occurred in India, Italy and the Czech Republic. One participant, Shimon Shapira, a retired Israeli general and an expert on the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, told me: "We discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers." Shapira described the problem as Iran's activities in the region, and said both sides had discussed political and economic ways to blunt them, but wouldn't get into any further specifics.

Eshki told me that no real cooperation would be possible until Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accepted what's known as the Arab Peace Initiative to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plan was first shared with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in 2002 by Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah, then the kingdom's crown prince.

Israel's quiet relationships with Gulf Arab states goes back to the 1990s and the Oslo Peace Process. Back then, some Arab countries such as Qatar allowed Israel to open trade missions. Others allowed an Israeli intelligence presence, including Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

These ties became more focused on Iran over the last decade, as shown by documents released by WikiLeaks in 2010. A March 19, 2009, cable quoted Israel's then-deputy director general of the foreign minister, Yacov Hadas, saying one reason for the warming of relations was that the Arabs felt Israel could advance their interests vis-a-vis Iran in Washington. "Gulf Arabs believe in Israel's role because of their perception of Israel's close relationship with the U.S. but also due to their sense that they can count on Israel against Iran," the cable said. 

But only now has open cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel become a possibility. For Gold, it represents something of a sea change. In 2003, he published a book, "Hatred's Kingdom," about Saudi Arabia's role in financing terrorism and Islamic extremism. He explained Thursday that he wrote that book "at the height of the second intifada when Saudi Arabia was financing and fundraising for the murder of Israelis." Today, Gold said, it is Iran that is primarily working with those Palestinian groups that continue to embrace terrorism.

Gold went on to say that Iran is now outfitting groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon with precision-guided missiles, as opposed to the unguided rockets Iran has traditionally provided its allies in Lebanon. He also said Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces propping up the Bashar al-Assad regime are now close to the Israeli-Syrian border.

A few years ago, it was mainly Israel that rang the alarm about Iranian expansionism in the Middle East. It is significant that now Israel is joined in this campaign by Saudi Arabia, a country that has wished for its destruction since 1948.

The two nations worry today that President Barack Obama's efforts to make peace with Iran will embolden that regime's aggression against them. It's unclear whether Obama will get his nuclear deal. But either way, it may end up that his greatest diplomatic accomplishment will be that his outreach to Iran helped create the conditions for a Saudi-Israeli alliance against it.

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The Saudis Team Up With Israel

MICHAEL J. TOTTEN

World Affairs, June 11

Saudi and Israeli diplomats jointly announced that they've held five meetings in secret since early last year in India, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The reason? Iran. The Israelis and the Saudis have a common enemy in Tehran, and they're increasingly relying on each other now that the United States, contrary to the interests of both, might ease sanctions if a nuclear deal gets hammered out later this year.

Retired Saudi general Anwar Majed Eshki and Israeli diplomat Dore Gold shook hands in front of the cameras during their announcement at the Council on Foreign Relations—a bigger deal than it seems. Not because it suddenly means that Israel and Saudi Arabia are best friends forever—fat chance of that ever happening—but because shaking hands with or even saying hello to an Israeli is a crime in some Arab countries, even in Lebanon which is more open-minded and cosmopolitan than the lot of them.

But bigotries can fade in even the most reactionary countries over time and under the right circumstances, and it's actually happening in Saudi Arabia.

Eli Lake covered the event for Bloomberg and described the Saudi general's speech this way:

He laid out a brief history of Iran since the 1979 revolution, highlighting the regime's acts of terrorism, hostage-taking and aggression. He ended his remarks with a seven-point plan for the Middle East. Atop the list was achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs. Second came regime-change in Iran. Also on the list were greater Arab unity, the establishment of an Arab regional military force, and a call for an independent Kurdistan to be made up of territory now belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Arab unity is a castle in the sky. Never mind hopeless cases like Syria and Iraq. Not even the tiniest Arab countries like Lebanon and Bahrain can manage to unify themselves locally. An Arab regional military force wouldn't require absolute unity (see NATO), but at the very least it requires participating states to be on good terms with each other. The Arab states right now, though, are as fractious as ever. The yearning for unity in that part of the world is so strong because the lack of it is as painful as it is destructive.

But take a look at the other points Eshki made.

He says Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Not between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Israel and the entire Arab world.

Try not to be overly skeptical. It's true that the history between Muslims and Jews is long and unpleasant, but the history between Muslims and Christians is equally long and unpleasant, yet Saudi Arabia has normal relations with every Christian nation on earth. The only Arab countries that don't have normal relations with the United States right now are Syria and Sudan. American relations with Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan are outstanding. Jordan's relations with Israel are outstanding. Morocco also has cordial, albeit quiet and semi-secret, relations with Israel.

Officially, the Saudis don't recognize Israel's right to exist, but at least they acknowledge the reality of Israel's existence, and they're increasing recognizing that the two nations have common interests and common real enemies.

Israel is not a real enemy. It's not even a competitor. It's a country the Saudis find distasteful for real and imagined reasons.

The Israelis are not going to attack Saudi Arabia, ever. The Iranians probably won't either, but they very well may back proxies Shia militias inside the country. They've been doing it for years in Lebanon and Iraq, and now they're doing it in Syria and Yemen.

Iran is to Saudi Arabia what Russia was to the United States during the Cold War. But declaring Israel an enemy of Saudi Arabia makes no more sense than declaring Peru an enemy of the United States.

So what if the Saudis find Israel distasteful? They find the United States distasteful, too, but we can work together well enough without rancor when our interests overlap. It's strange, but true: Saudi Arabia is like a watered-down version of ISIS domestically and Britain internationally.

Riyadh did propose a peace deal with Jerusalem in 2002. They'll recognize the Jewish state if the Israelis withdraw to the 1967 borders, accept a Palestinian state, and allow the right of return to all the children of all the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. That's not going to happen, of course. Israel has no room for millions of Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom have never set foot inside the country. But the Saudi proposal could at least be a starting point for negotiations. Either way, the Saudis made it clear more than a decade ago that they'll be willing to recognize Israel's right to exist in the future under certain conditions. The current hostility—which is clearly not what it used to be anyway—need not be eternal.

It's not just the Saudi government that's coming around. Saudi citizens are viewing the region more realistically, too. A recent poll conducted by the IDC Institute for Policy and Strategy found that only 18 percent of Saudis view Israel as their principal enemy. 22 percent said that distinction belongs to ISIS while a whopping 53 percent fingered Iran.

Much of the Middle East seems stubbornly resistant to positive change, but history is a river, not a statue. All things eventually pass.

"What we think here in Israel about the Saudis is not exactly what they are," said the IDC's Alex Mintz. The same goes double for the Saudi view of Israelis, of course, but as retired Israeli general Shimon Shapira told Lake, "we discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers."

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Gaza One Year After - An Interview with Elhanan Miller

Fathom, Winter 2015


ALAN JOHNSON: It's 15 June in London and I am joined by Elhanan Miller, the Arab Affairs reporter for the Times of Israel to discuss the Gaza Strip, almost one year after the conflict of 2014. We will discuss the state of the Strip today, and the evolving Israeli strategy towards it, the possibility of talks between Israel and Hamas, and whether the rise of ISIS in the Strip changes the calculations of Hamas and Israel. Elhanan, let's start with the situation in the Strip today. A year on from the end of the hostilities, how bad is it?

ELHANAN MILLER: Things are bad. Israel is trying to bring in as much cement as possible, for reconstruction projects. It has already delivered all the cement needed for the damaged homes, meaning the homes that haven't been completely destroyed. All of those that were eligible for cement deliveries, under the ceasefire agreement, have received them. So, reconstruction of the damaged homes is underway.

The destroyed homes haven't been rebuilt yet. According to the UN, there are still tens of thousands of people who are displaced, unemployment obviously is very high, and so the situation is dire for Gaza. The people I speak to in Gaza are quite desperate about the economic prospects and the situation on the ground. Prospects aren't very good; the Rafah border is usually closed, though Egypt allows some Palestinians to enter Gaza but not to leave. As a result, at present there are actually more people leaving Gaza and entering Israel through the Erez crossing with Israel than through the Rafah crossing with Egypt.

ALAN: Who do Gazans themselves blame for their situation?

ELHANAN: They think there are a few culprits. Hamas isn't necessarily at the top of the list. Mahmoud Abbas, as President of the Palestinian Authority and the Chief of the Unity Government; he is seen as a culprit. The Egyptians, too. There is a lot of anger in Gaza at their treatment by the Egyptians. Israel obviously features quite high on the list. There is growing discontent with Hamas as well, but I wouldn't say that Hamas is viewed as the primary culprit in the eyes of most Gazans.

ALAN: Recently, both President Rivlin and Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, have spoken positively about the idea of negotiations with Hamas, albeit not tomorrow. Both the Prime Minister and Dore Gold, the newly-appointed director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, remain opposed. Where is the Israeli debate now, as regards negotiations? And, more generally, what is Israel's strategy towards the Strip?

ELHANAN: The consensus in Israel is that there should be no direct negotiations with Hamas, which is still seen as a terrorist entity committed to the destruction of Israel. That is on the official level. On the unofficial level, messages are being conveyed all the time between Israel and Hamas, mostly through businessmen from Gaza who enter Israel. There are more permits being issued to businessmen from Gaza to enter Israel, which conveys messages to the government in Gaza through those people.

On the Hamas side, there is certainly an interest in indirect talks with Israel, through the Egyptians. Mousa Abu-Marzouk who is the deputy head of the Hamas bureau, recently wrote on Facebook that he wishes that Egypt would renew its role as mediator between Israel and Hamas - a role that it had during the war last year but which ended when the war ended. Another Hamas official, Salah Bardawil, said that it is in the interest of Hamas to pursue a permanent ceasefire with Israel. So, there are some very positive indicators coming from Hamas, which of course stem from the desperation of Hamas.

On the Israeli side, things are more complex. If it decided to operate directly with Hamas, Israel would in effect be throwing Mahmoud Abbas under the bus. Officially there is a unity government between Abbas and the Fatah movement and Hamas, but they are devout enemies of each other. Abbas considers Hamas to be his nemesis. By openly engaging Hamas, Israel would be effectively weakening Abbas in the West Bank, and he is already weak. Israel is wary of doing that, and there are also some international players seeking to prevent Israel from doing that.

ALAN: Recent rocket attacks from the Strip were, apparently, launched by an ISIS-identified group trying to embarrass Hamas. How significant is the emergence of ISIS in the Strip and how is it changing the calculations of both Israelis and Hamas?

ELHANAN: We are told by Israeli military officials that there is no real presence of ISIS as such, or of the Islamic State in Gaza. There are Salafi, maybe even Jihadist groups, who are supportive of the ISIS ideology, but we haven't seen any official links between the Islamic State and the Gaza Strip. We do see that connection in the Sinai Peninsula and some elements in Gaza have been supporting the Islamic State there. Hamas, however, has begun to crack down on the "Gaza-Sinai link" in an attempt to improve its position with Egypt. There were reports last week that Hamas has begun to collaborate more with Egypt in intelligence sharing, providing lists of wanted people or suspects crossing into the Sinai.

I think the threat has been magnified by Hamas to show that it is the responsible partner. There have been these sporadic rocket launches from these groups, but Hamas quickly cracked down on them. During a raid on a house Hamas even killed one of these Jihadists, a man named Younes al-Hunnor. Yes, there is something happening on the ground, but it is hard to establish just what at this moment.

ALAN: Shortly after the last conflict ended, we organised a Fathom symposium on the idea of "reconstruction for demilitarisation" in the Strip. We invited a series of analysts and commentators to contribute. The idea received almost universal support but no one really thought it could happen any time soon. Where are we today? Are any international or local actors making progress with "reconstruction for demilitarisation" or does it remain only an idea?

ELHANAN: It remains an idea. But look, even if we don't reach an explicit deal under those terms that is the way things are going, implicitly. I don't think that Hamas will voluntarily demilitarise, but Israel understands that the security along the Gaza border and Southern Israel does depend on a certain level of economic viability in the Gaza Strip. So, we have seen a drive by Israel to allow more products to enter into the Gaza Strip, more export of agricultural products from the Strip, and the easier passage of more students, pilgrims and businessmen. But all the while, Israel is walking this very fine line of not legitimizing Hamas too much, and not weakening Abbas, as I pointed out before.

Israel certainly understands that reconstruction is in the interests of both sides. In terms of Israel's interests, they don't want to allow refugees to stay in schools and refugee camps as they have been for the last year. However, I don't see a deal as such happening, simply because there is no broker interested in forging that deal. The Egyptians, who had been involved, have left the scene for the time being, so there is no one to mediate.

ALAN: We have this crop of reports about the 2014 Gaza conflict - everyone from Amnesty International to the UN. Let's begin with the Amnesty International Report which, unusually, criticised Hamas for the summary execution of "collaborators" and for human rights abuses. It seemed that Hamas were put on the back foot by that report. How much impact did it have?

ELHANAN: Hamas is always struggling to legitimise itself regionally, but also in the eyes of its own population. So Hamas had to respond to that report and try to justify what happened. The leadership said that they did not carry out the executions, but rather an angry population did. They said, look, Gaza is a tribal society so people take revenge and it's not always easy to stop that. They also claimed that the killers had escaped from jails bombed by Israel during the war, so in a way it was Israel's fault. And they blamed the collaborators.

Hamas has long tried to crack down on collaborators and spies; they have become obsessed with the idea of espionage and collaboration. But my sense is that Hamas' grip on the population is very strong. There aren't any real threats to its power in the foreseeable future. Israel acknowledges this openly and therefore, in dealing with Gaza, it understands that it will have to deal with Hamas in one way or another.

ALAN: Yesterday, we had an Israeli report on the 2014 conflict, almost 300 pages long. Very soon the United Nations enquiry led by Justice McGowan Davis will publish its final report. What do you think the international shake-out will be from these two reports?

ELHANAN: The extent of damage caused to Gaza will inevitably make Israel culpable for what happened there. I don't think that Hamas will come out clean though, especially in light of the latest Amnesty International report that indicates that Hamas not only carried out summary executions, but also used hospital facilities and other facilities to torture people. It has already been reported and documented that they used civilian sites to launch rockets.

Israel had indicated before the 2014 conflict that in order to deter Hamas, which is a guerrilla movement, it would have to cause more extensive damage. And we have to admit the extensive damage to the Gaza Strip. International tribunals will have to catch up with the reality of this imbalance of power, an imbalance that we see in other conflicts throughout the world; in Yemen, there are American drones and now there is a Saudi-led coalition using airstrikes. This imbalance of power, between vastly superior technological and military power and more primitive rocket launchers from Guerrilla fighters, is something that the world needs to start understanding and developing a new approach to judging, in terms of the laws of war.

The Israeli army has tried to work hand in hand with legal advisors; every major strike on Gaza was accompanied by a team of legal advisors. This played out, most prominently, in the warning system that Israel developed in this war; a multiple system with both leaflets dropped and warning shots; only after that were certain sites attacked. This is being challenged by other NGO's in Israel, such as "Breaking the Silence" and others, who brought forward reports of violations from soldiers. There is a plurality of voices from Israel and it is hard to tell at this point what the international report will produce.

ALAN: To move on from Gaza to the peace process, we are hearing a new phrase "Autumn reset" that suggests the Prime Minister is contemplating a diplomatic initiative once the Iranian negotiations are out of the way. Internationally, there has been huge scepticism about Israel's ongoing commitment to the two-state solution since the Prime Minister's election-time statement that there would be no Palestinian State on his watch. He has since walked that back, pointing out that he was highlighting current circumstances rather than making an in-principle objection to Palestinian statehood. And now there are now rumours that we are going to see a new warmness towards the Arab peace initiative, a new call for negotiations, and perhaps a recommitment to the framework of two states for two people, and so on. What is likely to emerge in the autumn in terms of a diplomatic initiative? 

ELHANAN: Well, I think that obviously there is more and more European and International pressure to come up with something. And there is an understanding within Israel that the status quo is toxic for Israel's position in the world. Netanyahu has spoken recently; he made a positive statement about the Arab peace initiative being a basis for future negotiations.

There is more and more talk in Israel about for the need for a larger framework of support in any future negotiations. Objective observers of the situation say that neither side - for its own political reasons - can deliver the concessions needed, so both may require some sort of external support. For the Palestinian side, the external framework of support would be an Arab umbrella and there have been indications of that happening, with some meetings between Dore Gold, director-general of the foreign ministry, and a former Saudi official. And Netanyahu has been speaking about regional partners. I think that there is an understanding that the purely bilateral track, with the United States as a mediator, hasn't produced the desired outcome. It hasn't been robust enough and the sides haven't been committed enough to the process. Now, given the Iranian threat, the Sunni Arab countries, predominantly Saudi Arabia, possibly Egypt and the Gulf States, will be able to support Abbas in some tough decisions that he might have to take in the new round of negotiations.

The West will also have to put forward certain parameters. The Palestinians and Abbas are indicating that they won't return to negotiations without an acceptance of certain negotiating parameters, such as recognition of the pre-1967 borders. And Obama, of course, has backed Netanyahu's demands to some extent regarding the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State. Look, a formula will have to materialise, in which the sides concede some of the positions of the other side and then enter a process in which probably the Arab League or the Arab world will be more active in backing the tough decisions, be it through compensation, benefits packages, helping to resolve the refugee issue which is one of the most contentious issues. I think that it's likely that we will see a political dynamic in the coming months.

ALAN: In that scenario, what are the chances of Herzog and Zionist Union joining a national unity government?

ELHANAN: That very much depends on the conditions and the prospects of success. If we just try to replicate past attempts, where there is just another round of bilateral negotiations, I think Herzog will be hard pressed to join something like that. I think there is a lot of pressure in his camp not to legitimise Netanyahu, whose majority is very small at the moment. There will have to be a very serious attempt this time in order for the Zionist Union to join up. But look, Herzog and Netanyahu aren't that far apart. Herzog presents himself as a centrist, not as a leftist - not all the people in his party, maybe not even the majority, would agree with the positioning and he has had criticism in his party. I would say that the possibility of Herzog joining a National Unity government are maybe 50/50.
 
Elhanan Miller is the Arab Affairs reporter for the Times of Israel. Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom.

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