Mossad’s Belly Dance

Israel’s spies and the Arab Gulf states part the curtain

In mid-August, Yossi Cohen, the chief of Mossad, flew into the United Arab Emirates. That alone would not be news to those who follow the convoluted, often clandestine, machinations of Middle East politics: As Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA operations officer who spent years in the region put it, “the intelligence relationships between Israel and select Arab countries has been the worst kept secret in the region”—for decades, he and other veteran experts on Israel intelligence say.

What was startling was that the UAE not only acknowledged Cohen’s visit, it hailed it. None other than the Emirate’s national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, praised Cohen for contributing to last month’s “success of the peace accord between the UAE and Israel,” according to the official Emirati WAM news agency. 

And more: They "discussed prospects for cooperation in the fields of security…,” WAM reported. A similar public relationship between Mossad and Bahrain, regional home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, is unfolding. And in August, Cohen stopped off in Sudan on his way home from the UAE to discuss a cooperative intelligence relationship between Jerusalem and Khartoum, which recently cast off its anti-Israeli Islamist regime last year. Likewise, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s late-August visit to Sudan was “all about pressuring the Hamdok administration to recognize Israel,” says another former CIA Near East operations officer who asked for anonymity to speak freely.

The common thread: Iran. Two years after President Donald J. Trump announced he was scuttling the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, “Tehran has resumed its enrichment of uranium, restarted research and development on advanced centrifuges, and expanded its stockpile of nuclear fuel, cutting in half the time it would need to produce enough weapons-grade fuel to build a nuclear bomb,” Foreign Policy magazine summed up in May. Its aggressive presence in Syria, continued backing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and backing of Yemen’s rebel Houthi government against U.S-backed Saudi counterattacks also pose a lethal threat, not just to Israel, but the entire region.  

“Of course this is the real reason the Gulf States are doing this,” says Polymeropoulos, who worked so closely with Israel during his 26-year CIA career that one legendary former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, “once personally thanked me for my assistance to the security of the state of Israel,” he told SpyTalk

“Apparently there is enough worry in Arab foreign policy circles about Iran that they believe their populations will stomach an alliance with Israel,” he added. “This overt alliance is the biggest change in the region in decades.”

Now that they’ve established diplomatic relations, “the intelligence relationships can now also expand,” Polymeropoulos said. “Mossad always looks for partners, and while they worked with both the UAE and Bahrain in the past, expect them to feel freer to operate in both countries.”

Gilead Sher, Israel’s former chief negotiator with the Palestinians, notes that Mossad has long played a key role in diplomatic affairs—a particular necessity with Arab states with whom Israel had only a covert relationship. 

“Up to now, the lead was given to Mossad officials in secret political interactions,” Sher, now a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told SpyTalk. “From now on they will probably step back to allow foreign office officials to take the front row.”

Or maybe not: In the past, Israel’s diplomatic overtures in the Gulf were complicated by rivalries between Mossad and its foreign ministry. Such turf fights may well not recede any time soon, given Mossad’s primacy, albeit covert, in Arab affairs.

“The Mossad has always seen itself as an alternative foreign ministry and is perfectly comfortable maintaining relations with governments—and certainly with intelligence and security agencies—in nations that do not recognize Israel officially,” says Dan Raviv, the co-author of several books on Israeli espionage, most recently (with Yossi Melman), Spies Against Armageddon. “Mossad personnel have been stationed in Gulf Arab countries for many years, and many of them did not try to hide their identities from Arab intelligence services. They cooperated in projects aimed against Iran and its proxies.”

Spyware Sales

Mossad can also be a bridge for the sale of sensitive Israeli military technology to the Arab states. Already, according to an August 25 report in the Israeli daily, Haaretz, Jerusalem helped broker the sale of “hundreds of millions of dollars” worth of cell phone spyware called Pegasus, ”to the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf States.” Developed by Israeli intelligence veterans at NSO Group Technologies in high-tech Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, it’s been “used to monitor anti-regime activists, with the encouragement and the official mediation of the Israeli government,” Haaretz said.

Such technology sales mean a windfall for Israeli defense industries.

“There's obviously been years of shadow intel collaboration, but now it wants new markets for its industries, especially its IT sector,” says the former CIA Near East operations officer, who also has extensive knowledge of Israeli affairs.

Anthony Chimente, a senior advisor with Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consulting firm, told Spytalk the UAE is particularly interested in buying Israeli-made armed drones. After the exposure of Mossad’s assassination of a senior Hamas official in Dubai 2010, he said, the UAE demanded the weapons from Israel as a way to calm their strained relations. But Israel refused to supply them, following Washington’s lead in previously turning down a sale of similar unmanned U.S. aircraft to the UAE. 

“So now they want those drones,” Chimente said. And it’s likely they’ll get them.

The drone and spyware sales, along with the impending travel of Israelis to Dubai and Manama for business or tourism, give Mossad more clandestine tools to penetrate Gulf state security sectors. “It means that Israeli intelligence can hide in plain sight as well,” posing in light cover as diplomats known to local security, Polymeropoulos says. “Perhaps,” he adds, there will be “less false flag operations,” in which Mossad operators pose as Canadian, French, Irish and other citizens. 

Even before Israel became a state in 1948, Israel’s spies had secret bases in out-of-the-way places in the region, such as pre-revolutionary Iran, according to his upcoming memoir, Head of Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel, by Shabtai Shavit, the spy agency’s chief from 1989 to 1996. “They often have placed themselves in more strategic locations: along coastlines, near the borders with hostile countries, and often near minority groups and tribes that have proved to be very useful to Israeli espionage,” says Raviv, who is writing a review of the book for Moment magazine.

The recent diplomatic breakthrough has added yet more lustre to Mossad’s legend—at least in Israel. There, Cohen is celebrated as the undisputed architect of the burgeoning new peace initiative between Israel and Gulf states.

Over the last few years, Cohen has made numerous secret visits to the Gulf states as part of the effort to create an alliance against Iran. Though he is hardly the first Mossad director to conduct secret diplomatic missions, Cohen’s clandestine efforts in the Gulf have been “by far the farthest reaching and most important,” writes Mazal Mualem, an analyst for Al-Monitor, an online publication focused on the Middle East. 

Next Year in Riyadh?

None of this could have happened without the approval of Saudi Arabia, the pillar of the oil-rich Arab sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf and author of a 2002 peace plan that offered Israel full recognition in return for its withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Now, the kingdom has opened its skies to Israeli commercial aircraft flying from Tel Aviv to Manama, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai.

Riyadh’s blessing for the new relationship between its Gulf neighbors and Israel buries the longstanding conviction among officials and experts that a Middle East peace was impossible unless Israel and the Palestinians first resolved their differences. At least for the moment.

Israel’s major enemy Iran, and its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, are not part of the arrangement, another reason to say a real Middle East “peace” is still out of reach. 

But for many Israelis, the deal amounts to a much desired mental floss. 

“Israel craves this recognition,” says the former Near East operations officer, who is not authorized to speak to the media without agency approval. And it’s a boon for “Israel’s psyche,” says Marc Polymeropoulos.

“This has not been discussed nearly enough,” he told SpyTalk. “Israel has had a complex for decades about being scorned in the region, and even internationally, due to the Palestinian issue. The relaxing of this allows Israel to feel more a part of the international community. They are not a pariah any longer.”

The Palestinians, of course, are the big losers in the new arrangements. Jerusalem and its settler backers have a freer hand than ever to isolate, arrest, and demean them.

“I am of course pleased about these diplomatic developments,” adds Polymeropoulos. “But make no mistake, I have great sympathy for the Palestinians, and I see no end in sight to their continued misery.”

“This is still a moral stain on Israel,” he continued, “and in my view, the collapse of the Saudi initiative (that called for a unified bloc to solve the Palestinian issue before normalization) means there is no reason—other than moral—for Israel to move away from apartheid-type policies.” 

Other ugly aspects of the Israeli-Arab security collusion meanwhile, have stained the deal.  

A Saudi dissident living in Canada has filed a lawsuit accusing NSO Group Technologies of using Pegasus to spy on him and his friends, including the U.S.-based Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered in a Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018.

Such revelations have certainly cast a pall over celebrations of the Israeli-Gulf states peace deal. “Israel’s light is dimmed when veterans of its famed armed forces, whose mission is to defend the Jewish state’s freedom, misuse their expertise to aid oppression in other countries,” wrote Max Boot, a columnist at The Washington Post who has been visiting Israel for more than 20 years. 

Either way, the new diplomatic order now evolving in the Middle East will be formalized Tuesday at the White House, where President Donald J. Trump will preside over a ceremony where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed will sign agreements normalizing relations. In a sign of future agreements to come, Bahrain’s foreign minister also will sign a normalization agreement with Israel at the ceremony. 

The monarchs well understand many of their citizens will be disgusted by the new embrace of the long despised Jewish state. But they figure they can handle any popular dissent, says the former CIA Near East operations officer.

“These regimes have made a strategic calculation,” he says, “that recognition's benefits. . . outweigh popular distaste for this act.”

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SpyTalk editorial assistant and reporter Chiara Vercellone contributed to this story.