Prem Kumar on Arab-Israeli relations

Secret Israeli-Arab Entente Blocking Peace?

Trump faces the challenge of inserting the U.S. into an Arab-Israeli network that was forged without it.

By: Paul D. Shinkman


President Donald Trump's goal of striking "the ultimate deal" between the Israelis and Palestinians faces steep challenges amid a new, clandestine security arrangement between the Jewish state and several of its Sunni Muslim neighbors, calling into question whether either side has the power or the incentive to follow through on negotiations.

Israel has forged unprecedented relationships in recent years with countries that would have otherwise been off-limits, namely Egypt, Jordan and members of Gulf Cooperation Council – all of which have interest in its unparalleled intelligence apparatus and the "qualitative military edge" that the U.S. by policy ensures. Some form of relations with the first two are not particularly surprising, given that they have established formal diplomatic ties with Israel, but now they're coordinating at previously unseen levels on security matters and operations. For GCC countries, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cooperation with Israel in any form – including intelligence-sharing – has been a cultural and social taboo and represents a major hurdle were they to publicize it.

The regional events that prompted this increased goodwill, namely the surge and spread of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, happened largely without U.S. involvement. The question now, amid his first foreign trip, is whether Trump has the savvy and the support to tap into this arrangement for America's benefit and whether it will upset any chances in the near term of the Palestinians retaining leverage for negotiations.

Arab and Israeli intelligence chiefs meet or communicate regularly, always off the record and in forums they would deny if asked specifically about it, according to multiple sources familiar with the working of these governments who spoke to U.S. News. The governments also capitalize on other seemingly benign business or foreign relations to pass messages or coordinate activities.

During a visit to the White House in February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at a newfound status of his home country, boasting about its unprecedented popularity among its most powerful neighbors.

"For the first time in my lifetime and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy but, increasingly, as an ally," the conservative politician said in an East Room press conference with Trump. He later added, "I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace, and peace with the Palestinians."

Trump expressed visible surprise at the time, saying, "I didn't know you were going to be mentioning that," before lauding the "bigger and better deal" he planned to implement with his Israeli counterpart.

The Israeli leader was making a not-so-subtle reference to the new security arrangement his government has forged with Arab powers. It's motivated in part by a resurgent Iran but also by these countries' perception that Barack Obama's stated preference for diplomacy with Tehran instead of military action meant they had to find a new partner to provide intelligence and advanced military capabilities. The need heightened amid the Islamic State group threat along with Iranian support for insurgent and rebel forces in places like the civil war in Yemen, to which Saudi Arabia has dedicated a military response.

In turn, Israel decided it would secretly coordinate some military actions with its neighbors for immediate threats – namely with Egypt against the Islamic State group's burgeoning presence on the Sinai peninsula and with Jordan against terrorist havens along the borders of neighboring Syria – and share intelligence with GCC countries.

"The Israelis and key Arab states felt Obama was walking away from the region," says Dennis Ross, an adviser to four presidents, including Obama, who also served as the point man for Israeli-Palestinian peace discussions during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. "Even though Arabs don't call attention to it, below the radar screen there's a level of cooperation that never existed before between the Israelis and the Sunni [Muslim] Arab states."

Former Obama officials push back against the claim that the president disengaged from the Middle East, as many critics are quick to say. But most regional experts agree that an air of U.S. disengagement came into existence on the ground in the Middle East during the time the Obama administration was negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, while also emphasizing the importance of trading large-scale American military deployments for bolstering local allies.

For the Palestinians, the consequences of Israel's partnership with their Arab cousins make top leaders nervous, not just about the future of their own peace negotiations but also whether they can maintain an ability to project their people's plight into a clarion call for Arabs everywhere.

"What Netanyahu means by this, and the Israeli government, is that they want the fruits of peace before actually putting in the seeds, irrigating it and paying attention to the tree," Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's ambassador to the U.S., said last week at an event in Washington. "They want one of the few leverages Palestinians – we – have, which is if Israel makes peace, quits its occupation, it will normalize its relationship with 57 Arab states."

"That is our incentive for peace," the former academic and economist said. "Now Israel is trying to take that incentive for peace from us and argues there is a relationship."

Zomlot dismissed what he considers an exaggerated story about Israel's newfound association with Arab powers, describing their relationship with the Palestinians as "solid, waterproof, like a rock."

"Politics can come and go," he added, "but as far as the Arab streets, its genetic."

Others, however, see it differently, particularly following some meetings that have become public.

In one example, retired Saudi Gen. Anwar Eshki's visited Israel in July, where he met with Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold in an event that served as a prime opportunity for two powers without formal relations to communicate. 

"This is a sign of what's to come: There was no denial that I recall from the Saudi government, and in many ways there was tacit admission that these kinds of contacts are important and they should continue," says Prem Kumar, a senior director for Middle East issues in Obama's National Security Council until 2015, now a principal at the Albright Stonebridge Group.

The Israelis believe that it makes sense to strengthen these relationships because it lays the foundation for more political cooperation in the future, Kumar says, emphasizing the common threats they face in Iran.

"It helps Israel to force multiply, in a sense, to cooperate with the Arabs," he says.

"It's not that Israel is popular all of a sudden," says Fahad Nazer, an outside consultant to the Saudi Embassy in the U.S. and a fellow at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. "It's that Saudi Arabia or the UAE or Egyptian officials or Jordanians or others – but certainly Saudi Arabians – are deeply concerned about Iran's influence, its policies and that perception."

The Trump administration has deep incentives to involve itself in this intelligence-sharing and military coordination agreement. After retiring from the Marine Corps in 2013 but before becoming Trump's secretary of defense, Jim Mattis repeatedly stressed the importance of offsetting Iran's influence in the region, either through its own military deployments or through proxy forces like Lebanese Hezbollah. He named "Iran, Iran and Iran" as his biggest concerns while serving as head of U.S. Central Command. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has also indicated the importance of retaining close ties with Arab partners and Israel.

In a statement shortly after he arrived in Israel on Monday, Trump said his trip beginning in Saudi Arabia demonstrated to him a "common cause" in countering "the threat posed by Iran." Later on his trip he said that the sentiment among Saudi leaders "toward Israel is really very positive."

The concern, however, is whether buying into the Israeli-Arab network, or bolstering it, comes at the expense of supporting peace talks with the Palestinians.

"There are obviously Palestinian misgivings about what that might entail for them," says James Cunningham, who served as ambassador to Israel from 2008 to 2011, now with the Atlantic Council.

When and if there is a peace solution between Israel and the Palestinians, the countries in the region will have a very important role to play, Cunningham says, though he doesn't believe there is any sentiment in Israel that peace is a possibility in the near term. He says the potential remains for keen U.S. diplomacy to employ these countries' relationships for U.S. interest, but that would likely require the Trump administration to abandon plans for deep budget cuts at the State Department and for it to put forward nominations for key positions beyond secretary of state that have remained unfilled months into Trump's term.

"It's complicated and it's difficult and would require both a strategy and some careful and smart diplomacy. Which is why I think people like me are distressed to see the diplomatic apparatus that we have at our disposal isn't fully functioning," Cunningham says.

Ross says there is a desire to see the Israeli-Palestinian peace process resume.

"That doesn't necessarily mean there's a readiness to take the steps that would be necessary to do it," he says.