How Secret Ties Between Israel & Saudi Arabia Evolved

Then-PM Netanyahu highlights new aviation options following peace deals, saying: "We're changing the map of the Middle East."/Saudi Crown Prince Crown Prince Mahmoud Bin Salman (Photo: AP)

A number of senior Israeli security and political figures have visited Saudi Arabia for over ten years, Yisrael Hayom reported on Sunday.

According to the report, this information is being published now in light of the current US effort to normalize relations between the two countries.

Visits by senior Israeli officials to Riyadh have been occurring for over a decade but apart from one meeting, they have been kept secret from the public. The exception was the visit of former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the Red Sea city of Neom in November 2020, where he met with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in a meeting also attended by then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Former Mossad head Yossi Cohen, who arranged the meeting and accompanied Netanyahu to Neom, wasn’t the only Mossad chief to visit Saudi Arabia. His two predecessors, Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo, also visited Riyadh.

Lower-level Mossad officials also visited Saudi Arabia for meetings arranged by the Tevel division – the Mossad department responsible for relations with countries with which Israel does not maintain official diplomatic ties, and especially with countries with which ties are conducted secretly.

Senior members of the IDF and the defense establishment also visited Saudi Arabia in the last decade, with the first and most prominent being Benny Gantz, who flew to Riyadh during his tenure as IDF chief of staff. Several IDF generals, various Defense Ministry officials, and several heads of the National Security Council also attended secrets meetings in Riyadh.

Representatives of the National Security Council also held meetings with senior Saudi officials in third-party countries, mainly in the Gulf and Europe.

The purpose of the meetings was to strengthen security coordination between Israel and the Kingdom, which face many common threats, the main one being Iran. Saudi Arabia is frequently attacked by Iranian envoys – the Houthis in Yemen – via ballistic missiles, and more recently by UAVs and cruise missiles.

In the past, Israel also assisted Saudi Arabia in dealing with ISIS, which threatened the stability of Sunni regimes throughout the region. Saudi Arabia was not the only country in the region that did not maintain relations with Israel but benefited from its assistance, with various reports revealing that Israel maintained intensive ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain prior to the signing of the Abraham Accords, as well as a number of other countries that were not part of the accords, including Qatar and Oman.

Israel’s technological prowess also played a part in its effort to assist Saudi Arabia. According to various reports, when Cohen served as head of the Mossad, he opened the door to the NSO company, which sold its Pegasus spyware to the Saudis. Saudi Arabia also acquired cyber capabilities from other Israeli companies, some directly and some through subcontracts with foreign companies.

The use of NSO technologies made headlines following the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. A number of reports linked the surveillance of Khashoggi to Pegasus software – a claim that NSO has consistently denied. Israel has also been accused of encouraging the sale of spyware to undemocratic regimes, which used it to track political opponents, human rights activists and journalists. After another wave of reports last year, Israel tightened the conditions for the sale of its spyware, including to Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi’s murder still clouds the relationship between the Biden administration and Riyadh but Biden’s desire to strengthen its regional alliance against Iran and its need for oil in the wake of the global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine has led to a change in its approach. This is proving to be a boon for Israel as it was reported last week that the Biden administration has been quietly mediating an agreement between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which if successful, will include concrete steps toward the normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Following the report on the deal, which was followed by a report that two senior Biden administration officials made a secret visit to Saudi Arabia last week, Channel 12 News reported on Friday that a senior Israeli official made a recent visit to Saudi Arabia and met with senior Saudi officials.

(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)