Israel Quietly Courts Sunni States


Wall Street Journal
Jan. 14, 2016

Growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have raised hopes in Israel that officials can build closer ties with the Gulf monarchies based on their shared animosity toward Tehran.

Led by Dore Gold, director-general of the foreign ministry, Israel has stepped up efforts to mend and improve ties in the region—all in a bid to counter Iranian influence and the threat of Islamic extremism.

A long-standing hawkish ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Gold said Israel and Sunni Arab states face a shared threat in Iran.

“Clearly there’s been a convergence of interests between Israel and many Sunni Arab states given the fact that they both face identical challenges in the region,” Mr. Gold told The Wall Street Journal.

The recent torching of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran—and diplomatic fallout between the Persian nation and Arab Gulf states—have underlined how common ground appears to be growing.

Iran’s nuclear deal with the U.S. and other foreign powers in July helped spur Israeli efforts to further develop back-channel relations with Arab states, Israeli officials say.

Mr. Netanyahu fought the deal for fear it would encourage Iran to further support military proxies in Yemen and Syria, a concern shared by Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

“What we have seen in the past six months is an intensification of the relationship [with Sunni Arab states],” a senior Israeli official said. “Israel is on the same side.”

Israel opened a diplomatic office at the United Arab Emirates (UAE) nternational Renewable Agency last year.
Now in the wake of the diplomatic standoff in recent weeks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, some Israeli lawmakers are calling for a public entente with Sunni Arab states.

“We have the same understanding of the region,” Tzipi Livni, a senior member of the opposition in the Israeli parliament and a former foreign minister, said in an interview. “This is the basis for an alliance.”

Even with geopolitical events nudging Israel and Arab countries closer together, there is still much that divides them. Gulf Arab states have lobbied the international community for Palestinian self-determination; repeatedly condemned Israeli military campaigns in the occupied territories; and don’t publicly recognize Israel’s right to exist.

The Gulf’s monarchies, sensitive to how resentment of Israel has been used to stoke extremism at home, would be loath to disclose closer ties with Israel.

The result: Israel still doesn’t have formal diplomatic ties with Gulf states, although Israeli officials acknowledge secret meetings have taken place in recent years.

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have recently dismissed speculation of the establishment of more formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

Mr. Gold is spearheading much of the focus on building better diplomatic, commercial and intelligence ties, Israeli officials and Western diplomats said. Mr. Netanyahu appointed him in May and Mr. Gold met publicly​last year in Washington with a former Saudi official.

Mr. Gold traveled to Abu Dhabi last year and was central in the opening in November of Israel’s diplomatic office at the International Renewable Energy Agency in the United Arab Emirates. The office is the first Israeli diplomatic presence in the Sunni state, where Israeli intelligence operatives allegedly conducted the assassination in 2010 of a senior figure from militant and political group Hamas. An official in Dubai called for the arrest of the head of Israel’s intelligence service and the U.K., Ireland and Australia expelled Israeli diplomats after alleging Israel used forged passports from the three countries for the operation. ​

Israeli government officials are reluctant to talk about specific examples of diplomatic, intelligence or commercial cooperation with Sunni Arab states, where the public still opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and military blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

U.S.-led peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians fell apart in 2014 and Palestinians have launched attacks against Israelis in recent months.

A public alliance with the Saudi-led Arab states is unlikely before a peace deal is agreed with the Palestinians, or at the very least, negotiations toward an agreement resume, officials say. “But this realignment is happening,” the Israeli official added. “Despite the situation that the Palestinian peace process has frozen.”

Israeli ties with Egypt have been improving after a deterioration under Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who came to power in elections in 2012. This month, Egypt’s ambassador to Israel returned to Tel Aviv after a three-year hiatus.

Mr. Morsi had recalled his top diplomat from Israel to protest an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip. But Mr. Morsi was ousted by then-military chief Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in 2013, and Egypt and Israel have increased intelligence sharing to combat Islamic State in Sinai, Israeli officials say.

“What we have with the Sunni countries is based on two common interests,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national-security adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and an analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “They don’t like the Iranians. They are afraid of Islamism.”

Israel also is in talks with Turkey to resume diplomatic relations after five years of back-and-forth recriminations over the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010. Nine Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American were killed when Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship carrying activists trying to break Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza.

Write to Rory Jones at

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