Israel and UAE held secret Washington talks

What happened: The White House hosted a secret meeting with senior Israeli and UAE officials last December, according to reports yesterday in Axios and Israel’s Channel 13 news.

  • Senior Israeli and US officials said the meeting on 17 December was arranged to discuss their positions on Iran, as well as the possibility of signing a non-aggression pact between Israel and the UAE.
  • In attendance were US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and his deputy, Victoria Coates, US special envoy for Iran Brian Hook, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and the UAE’s Ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba, who is very close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Otaiba was also present at last week’s White House launch of the US plan for Israel and the Palestinians.
  • A senior White House official told Axios: “While the United States would certainly welcome expanding relationships between our critical allies and partners in the Middle East, we’re not going to detail private diplomatic conversations, nor do we have anything to announce.”
  • The secret meeting explains why the UAE’s foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan,retweeted on 21 December an article in the Spectator by Ed Husain titled “Islam’s reformation: an Arab-Israeli alliance is taking shape in the Middle East”.

Context: US special advisor Jared Kushner has reportedly been a key proponent in the Trump administration of facilitating closer ties between Israel and the Arab states.

  • The shared threat of Iran has helped the US to build covert relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states.
  • According to Axios, the idea for the trilateral forum with Israel and the UAE emerged during the the US-led anti-Iran conference in Warsaw in February 2019. At least two other meetings took place before December, one in the Spring and one in the Summer, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
  • In August 2019, a senior US official said: “The Iran Action Group [led by Hook] has been working with several countries to coordinate diplomatic, security and intelligence activities in response to Iran’s escalating aggression. These efforts have helped to pre-empt and neutralise multiple Iranian threats including terrorist and cyber operations in third countries, planned attacks against international shipping, and illegal trafficking in arms.”
  • Over the last two years Israeli officials have began to openly visit several Arab Gulf countries. In October 2018, Netanyahu was welcomed to Oman by the country’s then-ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said. In October 2019, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said he was advancing non-aggression treaties with several Arab states in the Gulf.

Looking ahead: The revelation of the secret meeting in December is not surprising, as signs of growing ties between Israel and Gulf states have been emerging in recent years.

  • The timing of the report could be linked to Israel’s election campaign and the need for Netanyahu to maintain momentum and try and persuade Israeli voters that he is transforming Israel’s relations with the Arab world.
  • Netanyahu visited Uganda yesterday and announced that Israel and Sudan are to start a process of normalising ties. However, Netanyahu was left disappointed when the Ugandan leader said he would only ‘study’ the offer to move the Ugandan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

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