Israel and UAE have maintained close covert ties since 1990s, magazine claims
New Yorker details secret intel and security cooperation

Israel and UAE have maintained close covert ties since 1990s, magazine claims

‘I can envision us being in the trenches with Israel fighting against Iran,’ crown prince of Abu Dhabi said to have told Jewish leaders two decades ago

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

Emirati men perform a traditional dance in front of flags bearing portraits of Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, February 9, 2016. (AFP/Karim Sahib/ File)
Emirati men perform a traditional dance in front of flags bearing portraits of Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, February 9, 2016. (AFP/Karim Sahib/ File)

For over two decades, Israel has maintained a clandestine but extremely close relationship with the United Arab Emirates, which has focused heavily on intelligence sharing and security cooperation, including potential arms deals, the New Yorker magazine reported on Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often touted Jerusalem’s covert ties with Sunni Arab states, which he says stem to a large extent from Iran being a common enemy and Israel’s growing hi-tech prowess, but he has been reluctant to specify the nature of those relations.

Monday’s lengthy New Yorker exposé revealed what it indicated was a deep and longstanding Israeli relationship with the UAE, and particularly with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, which started when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister in the mid-1990s.

Israel in 1996 officially opened “trade offices” in Oman and Qatar (which have since closed), but the Jewish state has never had formal ties with the Emirates.

“The secret relationship between Israel and the UAE can be traced back to a series of meetings in a nondescript office in Washington, DC, after the signing of the Oslo Accords,” the article, which was posted online on Monday and will appear in the New Yorker print edition next week, states.

Ties started when the UAE sought to buy F-16 fighter jets from the US during Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House, according to the piece, which also deals with many other aspects of US-Israel ties.

US and Emirati officials were worried about Israeli protests over the arms sale, but rather than veto the deal, Jeremy Issacharoff — today Israel’s ambassador to Germany, but then an Israeli diplomat working out of the DC embassy in Washington — asked for an “opportunity to discuss the matter directly with the Emiratis, to find out how they intended to use the American aircraft,” the paper’s staff writer Adam Entous cites former US officials as saying.

A government-backed think-tank in Abu Dhabi called the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research then “became a conduit for contacts with Israel,” the magazine claims.

Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff on March 20, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)

In 1994, Issacharoff met with Emirati officials in a private office, “off the record, unofficially,” according to the article. “Israeli and Emirati officials didn’t agree on the Palestinian issue, but they shared a perspective on the emerging Iranian threat, which was becoming a bigger priority for leaders in both countries.”

Rabin later told the White House that Israel did not object to the F-16 sale, a position which helped “build a sense of trust between Israel and the UAE,” the New Yorker cites former US officials as saying.

Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Emirati leader known as MBZ, did not mind that the fighter jets contained Israeli technology, as long as they helped modernize his country’s military defend itself against the Islamic Republic.

“I can envision us being in the trenches with Israel fighting against Iran,” a former American official recalled MBZ telling a visiting delegation of US Jews.

“They assumed that he was telling them what he thought they wanted to hear, but the official said that for Emirati leaders like MBZ, ‘it’s the old adage: the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’” according to the magazine.

Joe Biden, then US vice president, shakes hands with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Hoping for the eventual normalization of ties, Israel developed an “intelligence-sharing relationship” with the UAE, which, years later, led to a joint appeal to US president Barack Obama to take the Iranian threat more gravely.

In early 2009, a senior Emirati dignitary and Israel’s then-ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor met with Dennis Ross, who at the time advised Obama on Middle East affairs, in a Washington hotel room, hoping that if Israelis and Arabs together made the case against Tehran, it would be taken more seriously by the administration, the New Yorker reports. Their effort surprised Obama, but failed to deter him from pursuing, and ultimately concluding, a deal with the Islamic Republic.

A few months later, Netanyahu asked then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton to persuade Gulf leaders to agree to a public meeting, to no avail.

In 2010, amid much controversy over an alleged Mossad operation in Dubai, when Hamas arms dealer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated, the Emiratis asked Israel to make it up to them by selling them armed drones, US and Arab officials told the New Yorker. However, Jerusalem declined, lest it antagonize the White House, which opposed the sale of armed drones to the UAE, according to the magazine.

Four years later, Netanyahu sought to expand Israel’s ties with the UAE beyond the secret channels, and instructed his special envoy Yitzhak Molcho “to concentrate on fostering political contacts with Arab states,” according to the magazine.

Yitzhak Molcho in 2008 (Michal Fattal/Flash90/File)

Molcho has since retired from his position. Israel’s ties with the Gulf states remain covert, but the two countries’ common opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal has led to an increase in contacts, a senior Israeli official told the New Yorker.

Toward the end of Obama’s second term, US intelligence agencies discovered phone calls and even a possible meeting between Netanyahu and a senior Emirati leader in Cyprus, the report cited US officials as saying.

“Obama set out to bring Jews and Arabs closer together through peace,” former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren told the magazine. “He succeeded through common opposition to his Iran policy.”

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