The US convened a summit of top regional defense officials from Israel and Arab counties to discuss coordination against Iran’s missile and drone threat, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday, citing US and regional sources to reveal details of the previously undisclosed meeting.
The talks were held at Sharm el Sheikh in the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula sometime in March and included participants from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordan.
Israel has diplomatic ties with Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain, but not with Saudi Arabia or Qatar.
Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, attended the summit, as did Gen. Fayyadh bin Hamed Al Ruwaili, the chief of staff of the Saudi armed forces.
It was the first time that such high-ranking officers from Israel and Arab countries had met under US military auspices, according to the report.
Representing the US was Gen. Frank McKenzie, the then-head of the US Central Command.
Participants reached an agreement in principle on methods for rapid notification of aerial threats, according to sources familiar with the talks. However, the alerts would be passed by phone or computer and not through a US-style military data-sharing system, sources said.
Also discussed was how decisions could be made on which country’s forces would respond to any incident.
The understandings are not binding, but a future step will be to obtain the backing of regional leaders to formalize the notification system and look at broadening the cooperation.
The report noted the summit was arranged in the wake of a secret working group of lower-level representatives who reviewed various hypothetical scenarios on how their countries could work together to detect air threats and counter them.
The US Central Command did not confirm the Sharm el Sheikh talks, noting in a statement to the WSJ only that it “maintains a firm commitment to increasing regional cooperation and developing integrated air and missile defense architecture to protect our force and our regional partners.”
Iran “is the primary destabilizing factor across the Middle East,” spokesman Col. Joe Buccino said.
A National Security Council spokesperson said only the Biden administration supports “broadening and deepening Arab- Israeli ties.”
Israel and the participating Arab countries did not comment to the WSJ about the talks, with the exception of the UAE. In a statement it remarked only that it “is not party to any regional military alliance or cooperation targeting any specific country.”
The UAE further said that it is “not aware of any formal discussions relating to any such regional military alliance.”
Last week, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke of a “Middle East Air Defense Alliance” that he said had already thwarted Iranian attacks. Yet sources familiar with the Sharm El Sheikh talks said that developments had not reached a point to be described as an operational alliance.
“It’s still a work in progress. It’s a mechanism that’s being built,” an Israeli official told the WSJ, while declining to discuss the Sharm el Sheikh talks. “There are definitely partners who see it as too sensitive to talk about.”
In the past, Arab-Israeli military cooperation was not considered possible, and the US sought only coordination between allied Arab states, the WSJ said.
Factors that enabled the Sharm el Sheikh talks to be held were the common concerns by participating nations over Iran, and the political ties between Israel and some Arab states brought on by the signing of the Abrahams Accords under the Trump administration, which also decided to include Israel in the Central Command arena of operations.
In addition, the US shift in priorities from the Middle East toward China and Russia has fed interest in some Arab countries in gaining access to Israeli air defense technology and weapons, according to the report.
A broad integrated air defense shield has been a goal for the US military for decades, according to the report. Such a system would join the radars, satellites and sensors of participating countries across the region.
However, plans have been held back by concerns from each country over sharing data that could reveal its own weaknesses and fear that Saudi Arabia would dominate the partnership.
The current US aerial defense system for the Middle East is based in the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and is attended by liaison officers from Arab allies.
But the growing threat from Iran’s ballistic missiles and drones has raised recognition of the need for broader cooperation. Adding to the danger is the use of drones by Sunni militant groups. Working with Israel on such threats is seen as more feasible than joint military exercises or maneuvers, the report said.
Although Jordan and Egypt, which signed peace deals with Israel long before the Abraham Accords, already cooperate on air defense with Israel, Saudi Arabia, which does not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, is likely to shy from working with Israel until ties are formalized.
At a March press conference, a month before he retired, McKenzie said, “The task in the theater is really how do you knit those together so you create more than the simple sum of the component parts,” but he made no mention of the reported summit in Egypt.