An 'emotional' Cohen speaks of 'huge satisfaction'

From Mossad overtures to frenetic US diplomacy: How UAE deal reportedly happened

Spy chief Yossi Cohen secretly visited Emirates over past year to broker accord, reports say; breakthrough said to happen in June in light of Netanyahu’s West Bank annexation bid

Head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen speaks at a cyber conference at Tel Aviv University on June 24, 2019. (Flash90)
Head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen speaks at a cyber conference at Tel Aviv University on June 24, 2019. (Flash90)

The director of the Mossad spy agency visited the United Arab Emirates several times to broker the historic accord to normalize ties between the UAE and Israel, and was Jerusalem’s point man for arranging the agreement, according to reports on Thursday.

The deal was boosted by cooperation between the two countries in the struggle against the coronavirus pandemic, according to Thursday reports by Israel’s Channel 12 and The New York Times.

A separate report on the Walla news site said the breakthrough happened two months ago, with Israel’s intention to annex parts of the West Bank playing a key role in shortening the path to a deal.

Mossad head Yossi Cohen made several clandestine trips to the UAE in the past year, and the Mossad arranged for secret shipments of medical equipment from Israel to the UAE after the onset of the pandemic, the Times reported.

Cohen has met often with representatives of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt in a years-long effort to build relations with the Gulf States, the Times said.

Channel 12 added that establishing relations with Arab states is considered the responsibility of the Mossad.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley — some 30 percent of the West Bank — and all settlements on July 1, with backing from US President Donald Trump’s administration. That angered and concerned the UAE which lambasted the move both publicly and privately, the Walla news site reported.

But the report said the matter ended up as an opportunity after Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, proposed in late June the idea of normalization in exchange for halting annexation plans to Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz.

Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner reportedly liked the idea and told Berkowitz to work on it, and on June 27 Berkowitz came to Israel and met three times with Netanyahu in as many days.

Avi Berkowitz, left, US President Donald Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, leaves the US mission to the United Nations after attending a luncheon for members of the Security Council, February 7, 2020 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Berkowitz was said to demand land concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for annexation, which angered Netanyahu. US enthusiasm for annexation was reportedly dampened by Blue and White’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi telling Berkowitz they opposed annexation at this time and preferred to focus on the coronavirus crisis.

Walla cited a senior White House official as saying that in one of his meetings with the premier, Berkowitz presented the idea of normalization with the UAE in exchange for taking annexation off the agenda. Netanyahu responded that he was open to considering the idea if it would prove to be serious.

Since then, American officials held intensive talks with Israeli and UAE officials on the matter, leading up to Thursday’s tripartite phone call between Trump, Netanyahu and UAE de-facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“We have been talking about this for over a year, but the issue of annexation created the atmosphere in which a deal became more attainable,” the White House official was quoted as saying.

As for Cohen’s efforts, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office Thursday night said Netanyahu had called him and “thanked him for the Mossad’s help over the years in developing ties with Gulf nations, which helped the peace deal come to fruition.”

On Friday morning Channel 12 reported that various former senior officials had called Cohen the previous night to congratulate him on his work.

“I didn’t think I’d be so emotional,” it quoted Cohen as saying Thursday. “A bit like a schoolboy.

“Yesterday was a very exciting day for Mossad,” he said. “Our job in Mossad isn’t only to prevent war or to stop terror attacks against Israel, but also to identify opportunities for peace across the region and to give it our all to promote them. That’s what we did, and it is a feeling of huge satisfaction for all the workers of Mossad who toiled on this important effort and contributed to its advancement. I’m proud of them.”

Netanyahu on Friday also thanked Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, saying he helped bring about the deal. “He worked quietly behind the scenes with great determination and skill with his Emirati counterpart and the White House team to bring this about,” Netanyahu tweeted, referring to al-Otaiba.

Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, which share a common foe in Iran, already had well established intelligence and security relations, which were kept quiet but considered an open secret.

The joint opposition to Iran was a significant factor in the decision to normalize relations, and security arrangements between the two states will continue and will be strengthened in the future, Channel 12 said.

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and de-facto ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, smiles during a meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, May 15, 2017. (AP/Andrew Harnik, File)

In June, Netanyahu announced that Israel and the UAE were cooperating in the fight against the pandemic, and last month, companies from Israel and the UAE signed an agreement to join forces to research and develop technology in the fight against the coronavirus.

Group 42, an Abu Dhabi-based technology company, signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries, according to the Emirati state news agency WAM.

Two direct flights from the UAE landed at Ben Gurion Airport in recent months with aid for the Palestinian Authority, in what was seen as a further sign of normalization with Israel. The PA rejected the aid on those grounds.

An Etihad airlines cargo plane at Ben-Gurion airport on June 9, 2020. (Moni Shiffer/Israel Airports Authority)

In May, a senior official at one of the country’s leading hospitals said several states in the Gulf, including the UAE and Bahrain, were actively engaged in cooperation with Israel’s health system.

A shipment of 100,000 coronavirus test kits delivered to Israel in March by the Mossad came from the UAE, the Ynet news site reported.

Netanyahu, Trump, and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner all said Thursday that they expected more Arab states to follow the UAE’s lead and normalize ties with Israel.

Senior Israeli officials reportedly said Thursday that they are in advanced talks with Bahrain about normalizing ties with the Gulf state, hours after the announcement on ties with the UAE.

Bahrain is expected to be the next country to establish official ties with Israel, a senior official told the Kan public broadcaster.

Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced their agreement Thursday afternoon. They “agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE,” they said in a joint statement with the US that was released by Trump.

Israel agreed to suspend annexation of parts of the West Bank as part of the deal.

Friendly Arab states, including Egypt, Bahrain, and a Saudi official welcomed the accord.

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