Three months after I came to live in Jerusalem, in November 1977, I joined my fellow Israelis standing on the side of the road to welcome President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. I had decided to immigrate to Israel from Britain in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Four years later, watching the Egyptian president make such a courageous step towards peace left a profound impression that subconsciously charted my way ahead in Israel’s foreign service.
My years as an Israeli diplomat saw many different contacts with Arab diplomats and academics. Generally, once a respectful and credible conversation was established, it was striking to see how such personal relations could become so close in such a short time, compared even with contacts with American or European diplomats.
These personal relations could also impact the relations between the respective countries. For this to happen it was important to maintain a high degree of discretion and even secrecy. Any leaks to the media would almost immediately destroy any sense of mutual trust essential to such contacts. Ironically the most important and fascinating elements of my career were the contacts that had to be concealed at all costs. The key factor here was to open and maintain channels of communication where none existed, and secure a deeper understanding of other regional actors’ thinking – well beyond the usual divisive Arab-Israeli rhetoric in the public.
Early Contacts with Egyptians and Jordanians
In May 1980, my career began in the legal department of the foreign ministry as an intern. The very first person I met was David Goldman, who had made aliyah from America. We immediately became friends, both fascinated by the secret and sensitive world we had now entered that also enabled us both to be involved in this new era of peace diplomacy. David was murdered by Hizbollah terrorists in their bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. His tragic death never let one forget that the path to peace was accompanied by those determined to prevent it.
During this initial period, Israel and Egypt were negotiating nearly 50 bilateral normalization agreements, spanning a broad spectrum of topics from economics, culture, tourism, civil aviation, to coordination of broadcasting frequencies. I participated in three of these negotiations and though these issues may not have been the most sensational, this was the first opportunity I had to sit with counterparts on the Egyptian side. The spark of inspiration from the Sadat visit had been lit, particularly as the talks were held in Cairo and Jerusalem.
I quickly realized that the Egyptians negotiators had intimate knowledge of the relevant international conventions and were extremely professional and disciplined. They were masters in presenting initial positions and walking them back as the talks proceeded. Watching the Egyptians was like getting a crash course in negotiations.
One of the rounds of negotiations was particularly moving. It was two weeks after President Sadat had been assassinated in 1981 at the 6th October parade to commemorate the 1973 War. His assassination immediately put into question whether Egypt would continue the path of normalization. This question was soon answered as we were scheduled to have normalization talks two weeks later in Cairo. This time we embarked overland from Jerusalem on a small bus, traveling south through Gaza City and then crossing into Egypt through northern Sinai to the Suez Canal. We then crossed the canal, had lunch in Ismailia, and proceeded to Cairo. The atmosphere in Cairo was still tense and there was a presence of police and security personnel on virtually every street corner. It was a very trying time, and one could only respect the Egyptian determination to signal the continuation of the strategy that Sadat had established, by hosting these talks.
My next opportunity to interact with our Arab neighbors was equally intriguing and a little covert. In the early 1980s, we talked with the Jordanians regarding water sharing from the Yarmuk river on the border in north Israel.
The chronic lack of staff in the legal adviser’s office gave me another opportunity. We crossed the Yarmuk river at a low point to the Jordanian side, sitting on sandbags face to face with our Jordanian counterparts drinking tea that had been offered by our hosts. These were primarily technical talks regarding the expectation of water needs of both sides, but I was impressed by the friendly and business-like way the talks were conducted. It became clear to me that a peace treaty between the two countries was clearly going to happen but would still take time. The two heads of delegations as water experts conversed in a respectful and productive way that led towards a reasonable understanding that would serve both countries.
Observing Arab Diplomacy at the UN
Once I became a licensed attorney, I decided to apply to the foreign service to become a career diplomat. In 1985, I was appointed to be an advisor to the Israeli mission to the UN in New York. The ambassador at the time was Benjamin Netanyahu.
During my time in New York, I met frequently with the Egyptian mission’s political advisor, Ahmad Abu al-Gheit, who subsequently became foreign minister of Egypt and is currently the Secretary General of the Arab League. I learned that while we were expected to explain our positions, it was equally if not more important to listen to the other side – particularly when the perspectives offered were designed to bridge differences and not perpetuate them. Another important lesson learned in these conversations was to respect your counterpart by never knowingly misleading them. Additionally, in one conversation, I happened to glance at my watch and my Egyptian colleague remarked that perhaps he was keeping me from something more important. I never looked at my watch again in talks with Arab colleagues.
The United Nations provided a good vantage point to observe Arab diplomacy, for example, Iraqi Ambassador Ismat Kittani, one of the most impressive diplomats at the UN at the time. He was born in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq and had been elected President of the UN General Assembly in 1981, less than a year after Saddam had attacked Iran. This was a clear tribute to his personal diplomatic skills.
I always wondered how Kittani must have felt defending Saddam Hussein’s regime, particularly after the use of chemical weapons against Kurds in Halabja in March 1988, which killed 5,000 civilians. Once we had an exchange on the floor of the General Assembly, when he criticized Israel and I exercised the right of reply saying that Iraq was the last country to lecture Israel on international comity and good neighborliness. In his response, which was measured and moderate, he referred to Israel by its name rather than the offensive term “the Zionist Entity” used by other Arab delegates and Iran. Subsequently an American academic (a mutual contact) was told by Kittani that the use of the word Israel was deliberate and that he hoped that it had been noticed. This was a modest but noticed gesture at the time.
The Multilateral Working Group Talks
The next phase of my career took me to the Director General’s office of the foreign ministry in Jerusalem, following the 1991 Madrid Conference and the ensuing bilateral and multilateral talks between Israel and its neighbors.
Once again fortune prevailed, and I was detailed to the Israeli delegation to the bilateral talks with Lebanon that were held in Washington, DC. The sense of expectation before the talks was enormous, even though a prior agreement with Lebanon in May 1983 was in the end disrupted and aborted. We enthusiastically redrafted an entire peace treaty, but once the talks began in late 1991 it became clear that our optimism was misplaced. The head of the Lebanese delegation began a series of monologues ensuring that we would not begin to discuss even the first word of the title of the peace treaty. Until then, I had always felt that any conversation with Arab counterparts had some intrinsic value, but this negotiation demonstrated the need to understand the other side’s internal dynamics before engaging.
The frustrating experience with Lebanon was tempered by a parallel track of multilateral talks between Israel and the Arab states, organized in five working groups, in one of which – arms control and regional security – I was a member. i was political counselor at the Israeli embassy in Washington in the fall of 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed, and Washington was a focal point in coordinating the activities of the multilateral talks.
This was a time of exceptional relations between Israel and America. There had been a breakthrough on the Palestinian track, Jordan and Israel were finally moving towards a peace treaty and we were meeting with a dozen or so Arab states in the multilateral talks. The Middle East became a source of hope and not eternal despair.
The multilateral arms control and regional security talks, held in Doha, Moscow and Tunis, were eye-opening for an Israeli diplomat, particularly those held in Arab capitals. They were conducted in a civil and respectful manner and sometimes the coffee breaks proved to be the most productive part. I sensed the new spirit of the times when David Ivry, former commander of the air force and the head of the Israeli delegation, engaged his Saudi Arabian counterpart Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, former intelligence chief, in casual conversation over coffee during these breaks.
Indeed, many personal relationships were created during the multilateral talks. We spent endless hours arguing back and forth over the wording of documents to reflect points of agreement. In the final analysis, while we were not always able to reach consensus, the process of arguing – that at times went on into the early hours of the night – created possible future channels of communication, long after we forgot what we were arguing about.
A deeper implication of the 1990s multilaterals was that they indirectly expanded the possibility of broader discussions between Israel and the Gulf countries and opened the door to bilateral visits including at the ministerial level. My first meeting with a Bahraini diplomat took place in the State Department in 1994 to arrange the first visit of an Israeli minister to Bahrain, for talks on the environment. Generally, these initial contacts enabled us to gain a deeper and more direct understanding of the distinct sensitivities and differences between the Gulf and other Arab regions and among the six Gulf countries. The growing trend of Gulf normalization with Israel may have contributed to Egyptian displeasure and its withdrawal from the multilateral talks, which ultimately led to their demise. But before the multilateral talks faded, they provided a degree of diplomatic cover and legitimacy for some of the Gulf countries to engage with Israel bilaterally.
Groundbreaking Contacts with the Emiratis
In 1994, I was approached in Washington by an American colleague with a request that Israel not object to the impending sale of F-16 advanced fighter aircraft to the United Arab Emirates. My immediate reaction was that if the UAE indeed made this request, they should talk to us directly. About two weeks later, I was invited to meet with Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi, the Director General of the Emirates Center for Strategic Affairs in Abu Dhabi, who was also an adviser to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the future President of the Emirates. I readily agreed and found in Dr. Suwaidi a strategic thinker and fascinating interlocutor who eloquently presented his country’s thinking on regional security and had a clear interest in embarking on a continued dialogue with Israel.
It became clear during the conversation that the overlap of regional interests between UAE and Israel was significant, and that the Emirates’ request regarding the F[16s would be reported to Jerusalem. After additional meetings with Dr Suwaidi and separate discussions regarding the broader implications of the sale for Israel’s qualitative military edge, Prime Minister Rabin informed the US Secretary of Defense that Israel would not object to the sale.
This was a significant confidence-building measure towards the Emirates that led to an informal Israeli presence in the UAE in the nineties, subsequent strategic discussions between both countries, and eventually the Abraham Accords almost thirty years later.
The next phase of regional contacts occurred during the difficult times of the Second Intifada in 2000-2002. As previously mentioned, we were able to establish an informal representation in Abu Dhabi in the mid-nineties, but once the Second Intifada intensified there was pressure on us to withdraw that presence. The main interlocutor at the time was still Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi – and after much discussion with our representative there, Jamal suggested in 2002 that I should come to Abu Dhabi before a final decision would be made.
Visiting Abu Dhabi on an Israeli diplomatic passport for the first time was an exhilarating experience; I felt that I had crossed once again a “final frontier” in the Arab world. I was also delighted to meet once again Jamal on his home ground and together attempt to avoid a disruption in the ongoing contacts we had initiated. Our conversation lasted for several hours, reviewing different trends and developments in the region since we last met and the difficult challenges the Palestinian uprising had presented not only to Israel but also to the Gulf countries. Another issue that entered the discussion was Iraq, and the growing tension between the United States and Saddam Hussein.
The discussion broached a broad spectrum of regional issues. My immediate feeling after the meeting was that the points of convergence between the interests of Israel and UAE were considerably greater than any possible disagreement and that there was a positive regional dynamic that could potentially overtake the Arab-Israeli conflict. We met again that evening and Jamal informed us that not only would Israel’s presence in Abu Dhabi be continued, but that they would like to hold periodic strategic consultations with Israel on the subjects we discussed.
We met several times before and after the Second Gulf War in 2003. The contacts grew in importance as the Iranian nuclear and missile programs became more advanced. Each visit, with small delegations on both sides, contributed to our exchange of assessments and enabled us to meet with senior Emiratis including the foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah, who received us in his home.
My relationship with the UAE continued in various capacities. In Washington in 2009, immediately after President Obama’s election, the UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba and I received parallel instructions from our respective foreign ministers to approach the new administration and present together our views on Iran’s threat to regional security. One of the most interesting aspects of this meeting was that we did not coordinate our briefings to the American side beforehand and yet the respective presentations complemented each other seamlessly.
In 2010, contacts between the two countries became strained because of the Mabhouh episode in Dubai (when a Hamas operative was assassinated by a team identified by the UAE as Mossad agents). I was asked to travel to Washington and meet with Yousef Al Otaiba because other points of contact had dried up. This was not an easy conversation, given the circumstances, but designating the meeting as one between personal friends helped reduce the tensions.
Back in Jerusalem
Upon completion of my second tour of duty in Washington, I returned to Israel in 2009 and assumed the position again as head of the Strategic Affairs Bureau in the Ministry. The next four years would witness intense diplomatic activity with respect to blocking Iran’s nuclear efforts, dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons and engaging with Arab countries regarding their proposal to establish a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East, each providing further opportunity to engage with Arab countries.
The civil war in Syria presented serious arms control issues. Our major concern was the massive stockpile of 1,300 tons of chemical weapons held by the Syrian regime and the possibility that they could fall into the hands of numerous non-state actors in Syria, from Hizbollah to ISIS. The agreement between the US and Russia to remove most of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles in 2013 was a major contribution to regional security but required consultations with other regional parties, in particular Jordan.
In addition, we were constantly monitoring the ongoing talks between the US, the EU3, and Russia on one hand and Iran on the other hand, and the efforts to counter the potential military elements of Iran’s nuclear program. Our talks with Arab interlocutors generally revealed a major overlap of concerns and interests – facing together the Iranian threat. During these times there were many meetings and discussions with our Arab counterparts in which the elements of the Arab-Israeli conflict appeared to fade and were substituted to a large extent by an Arab-Israeli convergence of regional interests.
While I was not involved in the Palestinian issue over the years in any official capacity, I recognize that identifying a political horizon for Israelis and Palestinians remains one of the key challenges of Israeli foreign policy. The ability to achieve further breakthroughs in normalization, including with Saudi Arabia, will be largely contingent on progress or at least stability with respect to the Palestinians.
Over the period of four decades, the accumulated conversations, meetings and dialogues of Israeli diplomats with their Arab colleagues have become a major part of the Israeli foreign ministry’s work. Much has been done under the radar to contribute to the gradual and painstaking work of normalization, creating a new regional reality. At times, the work of the foreign ministry has been underestimated by the Israeli public. These achievements have remained hidden from the public eye, so that they can be sustained.
Andre Malraux once remarked that “man is not what he appears to be, he is what he hides.” Similarly, what Israeli diplomacy hides is the very reason Israel’s foreign service must be strengthened and its diplomats taught to always seek additional frontiers and opportunities in our relations with the Arab world.