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After years undercover, diplomats who built Gulf ties inch out of the shadows

Serving under false identities in Arab states to promote bilateral relations, envoys given go-ahead to reveal some of their stories, not names, as relations come into the open

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The Foreign Ministry honors Israeli diplomats who secretly served in Arab Gulf states, December 2020 (courtesy MFA)
The Foreign Ministry honors Israeli diplomats who secretly served in Arab Gulf states, December 2020 (courtesy MFA)

A few years ago an Israeli diplomat serving undercover in the Arab Gulf gave birth to a baby boy. This may have been the first time an Israeli citizen had been born in the United Arab Emirates.

“This was a family effort for the sake of advancing the ties most essential to the State of Israel,” she told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper last week. “We paid a not so insignificant price, but seeing the fruits of our work on the ground fills us with pride over the grain of sand that we contributed as a family to making the world a better place.”

For years, Israel’s quiet diplomacy in the UAE and other Gulf states, now bursting into the open, has been one of the region’s worst kept secrets. But the names and stories of the 20 or so women and men who drove these clandestine efforts still largely remain under wraps.

Their covert efforts are credited with laying the groundwork for US-brokered agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, allowing them to finally take a tentative half-step into the spotlight.

On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry held a ceremony honoring the diplomats who over the last two decades served in various cities across the Gulf, bringing part of their stories into the open, though their names are still kept hush-hush.

“The peace today is built on the personal relations that we’ve built over years,” an unnamed diplomat told the ceremony, according to a statement provided to The Times of Israel by the Foreign Ministry.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told the diplomats at the Jerusalem ceremony that “the signing of the Abraham Accords led to the revelation of some of the activities, after two decades in which it was forbidden to talk about you.”

While across town Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was speaking about the symbolism of Hanukkah as it related to the newly announced diplomatic deal with another Arab state, Morocco, Ashkenazi also found the timing of the ceremony during the Festival of Lights to be freighted with meaning.

“This is a wonderful time to shine a light on those who worked away from the spotlight,” he said. “I hope that in the near future we will be able to reveal [to the full extent] the important activities you have done for the State of Israel. You are the spearhead of Israeli diplomacy.”

In a Hebrew-language video about the ceremony posted on Facebook by the ministry, one unnamed diplomat says that “today, it’s difficult to imagine what we did there.”

“These were the most fascinating missions, I think, that the Foreign Ministry has to offer,” another one adds.

טקס הוקרה לשליחי המפרץ לדורותיהם

שעה קלה לפני הבשורה המשמחת מוושינגטון על חידוש כינון היחסים עם מרוקו, היתה לי הזכות לקיים טקס הענקת מגנים ותעודות הוקרה ל"לוחמים האלמוניים", הדיפלומטים ששירתו בנציגויות באמירויות ובבחריין שפעלו במשך שני עשורים בצללים תחת מסווה אזרחי.התרגשתי לראות הדמעות, על קבלת ההכרה וההוקרה באופן רשמי, בעיניי הדיפלומטיות, הדיפלומטים ואנשי המטה שסיפקו את המעטפת הביטחונית, הסוציאלית והפסיכולוגית.חתימת "הסכמי אברהם", הביאה לחשיפת חלק מהפעילות, אחרי שני עשורים בהם אסור היה לדבר עליהם. לכן, אך טבעי וסמלי היה זה, לערוך את אירוע ההוקרה לפעילותם, דווקא בערב נר ראשון של חנוכה ולהאיר את אלו שעבדו "בצללים", לעתים תוך סיכון חיים.הסכמי אברהם הם הסכמים שיכתיבו את ההיסטוריה מחדש. הסכמים שלא הגיעו יש מאין אלא הם תוצר של המקצועיות והמסירות של אנשי משרד החוץ.למען הרגעים האלו, למען ימים אלה, עבדו יומם וליל, וזוהי הזדמנותנו לומר להם ולבני משפחתם תודה.חג חנוכה שמח לכולם!משרד החוץ

Posted by ‎גבי אשכנזי – Gabi Ashkenazi‎ on Friday, December 11, 2020

The Foreign Ministry declined several interview requests and did not even allow for the publication of the names of any of the diplomats who were honored for serving in the Gulf, citing security concerns.

But in private conversations, some of them revealed that they have fascinating stories to tell of their years serving secretly in the Arab world, some of which will probably only be made public years from now.

What we already know is that while serving in the Gulf, the diplomats operated with false identities, often pretending to be businesspeople, a cover story that allowed them to help build trade ties along with pushing diplomatic initiatives.

“The diplomats worked mostly towards creating commercial opportunities for Israeli businesses that were interested in promoting trade ties in the region, but also advanced diplomatic relations between the countries,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Even with diplomatic ties now in the open, that expertise will continue to come in handy, aiding the burgeoning trade relationship.

“We can help the Israeli business community also in the future, thanks to our familiarity with the business and trade culture in the Gulf,” said a diplomat who served in the UAE between 2005 and 2008.

The Foreign Ministry honors Israeli diplomats who secretly served in Arab Gulf states, December 2020 (courtesy MFA)

As with other postings, those stationed in the Gulf often brought their families along, or started them there.

“We had many challenges and frustrations, but also historic moments. The most important, at least from a family perspective, was the birth of our son,” said the aforementioned new mom, who served in the Gulf between 2007-2009 and again between 2012-2014.

Another diplomat said she met and fell in love with her future husband while on a secret mission. “In the unlikeliest place, where you could count the number of Israelis on one hand, we found each other. Our family was born in the Gulf,” she recalled.

“Peace did not suddenly fall from the sky,” she went on. “It’s a lot of work by a lot of people over many years. It’s great to see how the state now reaps the seeds of peace that we sowed at the time.”

Some Israeli diplomats have spoken on the record about their covert work with Gulf officials.

After the historic September 15 White House ceremony during which the UAE and Israel signed their peace treaty, Jeremy Issacharoff, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, posted on Twitter a selfie with Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba, “On this day after many years of friendship and discreet contacts, we can now be photographed together without masks,” he wrote next to the photo.

“I have known Yousef al-Otaiba for many years. During this time we developed a personal friendship based on trust, discretion and mutual credibility,” Issacharoff told The Times of Israel in an interview at the time.

“It is very rare in diplomacy to have the opportunity to see a relationship expand from its initial contacts and be able to witness its formalization into full diplomatic relations as we did on the White House lawn,” he said.

“It was also very symbolic to have met Yousef at the ceremony and be able to finally ‘take the mask off’ the relationship, if only for a brief instant,” he added, a nod to the pandemic regulations in place requiring face coverings. “This is the completion of a personal circle that now opens a much greater one between our two countries.”

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