Israel and the UAE have been engaged in secret normalisation talks since the 1990s, according to an exposé published by the New Yorker.
Released yesterday, the exposé provides detailed insights into decades of behind-the-scenes meetings and initiatives between the two powers aimed at a normalisation of relations. It reveals that "the secret relationship between Israel and the UAE can be traced back to a series of meetings in a nondescript office in Washington D.C after the signing of the Oslo Accords."
This particular meeting discussed the possibility of the UAE purchasing F-16 fighter jets from the US. Both the UAE and US were concerned that such a move would provoke protestations from Israel, but a diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Jeremy Issacharoff, explained "the Israelis wanted the opportunity to discuss the matter directly with the Emiratis."
In 1994, a US consulting firm provided assistance to Jamal S. Al-Suwaidi, an Emirati academic who was establishing a government-backed think tank called the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. This "became a conduit for contacts with Israel," facilitating meetings between Al-Suwaidi and Issacharoff in a private office in Washington. A former official told the New Yorker "this was all done off the record, unofficially" so that both the Israelis and the Emiratis could say "the meeting never happened".
In the years that followed, such back-channels were fostered by Israel and the UAE. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Zayed, completed the F-16 deal, despite knowledge that the aircraft contained Israeli technology. Bin Zayed gave Al-Suwaidi his blessing to bring delegations of influential American Jews to Abu Dhabi to meet with Emirati officials. An intelligence-sharing relationship emerged from these preliminary contacts.
While these early overtures took place with the full knowledge of US administrations, Israel-UAE relations reached a peak around 2016. The New Yorker explains that:
Toward the end of Obama's second term, US intelligence agencies learned of phone calls between senior UAE and Israeli officials, including calls between a senior Emirati leader and [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu. Then US intelligence agencies picked up on a secret meeting between senior UAE and Israeli leaders in Cyprus. US officials suspect that Netanyahu attended the meeting, which centred on countering Obama's Iran deal. The Israelis and the Emiratis didn't inform the Obama Administration of their discussions.
Much of this Israel-UAE cooperation is believed to have been driven by a "my enemy's enemy is my friend" approach towards increasing Iranian influence in the region. Both parties have made extensive efforts to influence US policy towards Iran, particularly in relation to the scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal which eventually bore fruit in May.
Yet the exposé emphasises that, for Israel, the benefits of public normalisation between it and key Gulf players could be profound and play a crucial role in any future negotiations with the Palestinians. According to Adam Entous, the author of the New Yorker report:
The Gulf leaders represented Israel's best hope in generations for securing acceptance in the region.
Israel hopes that Gulf-state support for the Palestinian cause, which it sees as lukewarm if not apathetic, will wane in the face of economic and regional strategy benefits cooperation with Israel could bring. When President Trump announced in December that he would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the US Embassy, "the public reaction from Arab capitals was noticeably mild." When in May the Embassy officially opened and over 120 Palestinian demonstrators were killed during the Great March of Return, Israel regarded the "ritual denunciations and support for the Palestinians" issued by Gulf States as "unmistakably bland" and evidence that "their emphasis had shifted away from the Palestinians."
The exposé concludes that "Netanyahu hopes that [Gulf] leaders will take steps to recognise Israel – a moment that the Palestinians […] would be loath to see." Thus far, the UAE has stopped short of public normalisation with Israel.