By Ramzy Baroud
In a few words, a close associate of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu summed up the logic behind the ongoing frenzy to expand illegal Jewish settlements in Israel. ‘These days are an irreplaceable opportunity to establish our hold on the Land of Israel, and I’m sure that our friend, President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will be able to take advantage,’ Miki Zohar, a member of the Likud Party was quoted as saying.
By ‘these days’, Zohar was referring to the remaining few weeks of Trump’s term in office. The US president was trounced by his Democratic Party rival, Joe Biden, in the presidential elections held on 3 November. Trump’s defeat ignited fears in Tel Aviv, and heated debates in the Israeli Knesset, that the new US administration might challenge Israel’s unhindered settlement expansion policies. Indeed, not only was Israel allowed to expand old settlements and build new ones throughout Trump’s term, but it was actually encouraged by US officials to do so with a great sense of urgency.
Zimbabwe is set to become the latest African country to embrace Israel as it seeks to get off the US sanctions list. Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, vowed to get the embattled country out of the economic turmoil it had faced under the former president, Robert Mugabe, since the late 2000s, and ending US sanctions on the country would be a good start.
In August, Mnangagwa appointed Israeli citizen Ronny Levi Musan as Zimbabwe’s honorary consul in Israel. This signalled strengthened relations between the two countries, and a move away from longstanding support expressed for Palestinians by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Musan is alleged to have links with the controversial Nikuv International Projects Company that was accused of engineering Robert Mugabe’s win in the 2013 Zimbabwean elections. He is also the CEO of the Ashelroi Group, which describes itself as aiming to connect companies, organisations, diplomats, leaders and churches from all over the world to Israel.
Mnangagwa hopes to enlist Israel’s military intelligence to train Zimbabwe’s security forces and to establish a defence academy in Harare, which will be run by Israelis.
Zimbabwe’s relations with Israel began in the early 1990s under Mugabe, who deployed Israeli riot control equipment to suppress political opposition, especially before the 2008 elections when there was a heavy clampdown on the opposition, particularly supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The former president was also instrumental in Nikuv obtaining a stake in Zimbabwe’sdiamond mines in Mutare through a contract that has since been characterised by widespread corruption. After Mnangagwa took power from Mugabe in a military takeover in November 2017, the relationship with Israel has continued, and, more recently, seems set to improve. Mnangagwa has been on a drive to attract investment into the embattled Zimbabwean economy, and to find a way to re-engage western countries to lobby for the lifting of sanctions against the country; Israel seems to be the gateway.
In October 2019, Mnangagwa met then-Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Earlier, in April 2018, Mnangagwa accepted the credentials of Gershon Kedar as the non-resident ambassador to Zimbabwe, but based in Israel. Kedar brought representatives of a number of Israeli companies to Zimbabwe, including Michael Biniashvili, who is associated with former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) general Gal Hirsch, a controversial businessperson who had been accused of bribery and money laundering while heading the Defensive Shield Holdings Company in which Biniashvili is a partner. Defensive Shield Holdings was accused of tax evasion in Israel and of bribingthe Georgian defence minister, Davit Kezerashvili, to secure military training contracts in 2007 and 2008. Another unsavoury businessperson that Kedar has pushed into Zimbabwe is Yaron Yamin, who owns 262 claims on sixty-two gold mines in the southern African country.
These initiatives, with Mnangagwa’s blessing, signal the president’s desperate attempts to appease the West, notably the USA, Israel’s biggest ally. Musan has set plans into motion for Mnangagwa’s official visit to Israel. His activities in Zimbabwe include collaboration with Pentecostal churches to push for Christian support for Israel. Zimbabwe’s honorary consul is also pushing for Israeli businesses to invest in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, and he recently announced the intention to open an Israeli academy of agriculture in Zimbabwe.
On the diplomatic front, Israel hopes that Mnangagwa will follow the example of his Malawian counterpart, Lazarus Chakwera, who announced plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem, thus legitimising Israel’s claim of Jerusalem as its capital city, a claim not recognised under international law. Chakwera, an Evangelical Christian who staunchly supports Israel, is on a drive to promote Israel on the continent. His visit to Harare last month likely included discussions with Mnangagwa about relations with Israel and the USA.
Donald Trump’s White House is increasingly doing Israel’s bidding on the African continent, and is pushing for African states to normalise relations with Israel as a means of unlocking US aid and investment. Sudan, for example, is being lobbied to recognise Israel in exchange for being removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. The USA has also lobbied Kenya, which already has strong relations with Israel – including in security and intelligence, to publicly support Israel and push for Israel to get observer status in the African Union (AU). Others countries, such as Chad, have also used relations with Israel as a means of receiving western arms, which are being used to suppress domestic dissent.
Like many other African and Arab states, Zimbabwe has long had secret relations with Israel; these are now coming to light through Mnangagwa’s rigorous attempts to attract investment into the Zimbabwean economy, despite ZANU-PF’s supposed support for the Palestinians.
Within days of the United Arab Emirates and Israel signing a deal to normalise relations, the UAE indefinitely postponed a ceremonial signing eventthat was to be held with the USA and Israel because of Israeli opposition to Abu Dhabi purchasing F-35 fighters from the USA. The UAE cancelled the trilateral meeting that was supposed to take place on 31 August. It is clear that the F-35 sale was an integral part of the agreement, and the Emiratis claim that the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, had agreed to it. No wonder that Netanyahu’s rejection of the possibility of such a sale outraged the UAE. These developments also suggest, as some Palestinians have pointed out, that the deal had nothing to do with Israel agreeing to halt plans to annex Palestinian territory, as Abu Dhabi had claimed.
The normalisation agreement between the UAE and Israel, concluded on 13 August, is far from being the historical deal the protagonists make it out to be. Instead, it exposed an existing affair the two states have cultivated from the mid-2000s. Although the UAE has just joined Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries with peace agreements with Israel, UAE-Israel secret relations for more than a decade have included commerce, cyber technology, security and military hardware and energy; these will strengthen and become overt under the new agreement. Israel had, in fact, secretly established and strengthened relations with a number of Gulf States in recent years, and some of these have reached maturity under US president Donald Trump.
Even before this agreement was concluded, Emirati-Israeli cooperation had strengthened with the assistance of the Trump administration. The UAE was one of three Arab countries to attend the unveiling of Trump’s farcical ‘deal of the century’ in January, and was a critical part of the June 2019 economic package for Palestinians designed by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and announced in a conference for this purpose in Bahrain. Following the conference, Israeli ministers undertook several visits to the UAE, signalling progress towards normalisation. A series of cooperation agreements between the UAE and Israel to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and an Emirati plane landing in Tel Aviv in July signalled increasing relations between the two countries, and the normalisation agreement was the logical next step. In July, in a move now seen as preparing the ground for the normalisation deal, the Emirati ambassador to the USA, Yousef Al-Otaiba, published an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper after Netanyahu had announced plans to annex parts of the West Bank, calling for these plans to be halted. Two other Gulf countries, Bahrain and Oman, as well Sudan could follow soon with normalisation plans.
Tracing UAE-Israel relations
Current relations between the UAE and Israel may be traced back to 2009, after the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president. The relationship blossomed via secret meetings held to pressure Washington into taking a stronger stance against Iran. However, UAE purchases of military intelligence software and arms deals suggest the relations started in the early 2000s. The two countries had already been communicating via intermediaries, mostly discussing their common opposition to Iran.
Mossad’s assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, Hamas leader and co-founder of the movement’s armed wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, in January 2010 threatened carefully-nurtured and ongoing secret links between the two states. Contact stalled over Mabhouh’s murder until 2012 when Netanyahu secretly met the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed, in New York during the UN General Assembly. Talks on Iranian activities in the region resumed, establishing mutual geopolitical concerns. Emirati cooperation with Israel accelerated as a response to the 2010/11 Arab uprisings and Iranian involvement in the Syrian conflict. In January 2014, then Israeli energy minister, Silvan Shalom, attended a renewable energy conference in Abu Dhabi, spurring on relations. In the following year, the UAE granted Israel permission to establish an office in Abu Dhabi for the International Renewable Energy Agency, which has served as platform for regular communication between the two countries.
To showcase the relationship and test responses, the UAE, in a break with a decades-old practice among Arab states, allowed the Israeli national anthem to be played for Israeli athletes at a judo tournament held in Abu Dhabi in October 2018. This was followed by visits to Abu Dhabi by Israel’s communications and culture ministers, Ayoub Kara and Miri Regev respectively, in the same week that Netanyahu made an unprecedented visit to Oman in which he met the country’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos. Gulf leaders reciprocated. For example, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was reported secretly to have visited Israel and met with Israeli officials; his visit was preceded by a July 2016 delegation led by former Saudi general, Anwar Eshki, who also met with Israeli officials.
In July 2019, the Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, attended the UN climate conference in Abu Dhabi, and, on the sidelines of the conference, discussed Iran with senior UAE officials as well as the Israeli ‘Tracks for Regional Peace’ initiative meant to open up travel and trade between Israel and Gulf countries. Katz’s visit came on the heels of the US economic conference in Bahrain. While such official visits between Israeli and certain Gulf states did not represent diplomatic relationships, they showed that Israel was making headway towards normalisation with Gulf countries – especially key players such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This was cemented in December 2019 when USA hosted Israel and the UAE in an anti-Iran meeting that discussed a non-aggression pact between the two states as a step towards full diplomatic ties.
Normalisation, weapons and strategic alliances
Until recently, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had shied away from overt relations with Israel for fear of backlash from their citizens. This changed with Trump’s attempts to build an anti-Iran coalition with Gulf states.
Emirati-Israeli relations have grown significantly in the fields of cyber-espionage and big data analysis since 2009. Acquiring Israeli technology and cybersecurity expertise has boosted the UAE’s domestic and regional surveillance capabilities – even against its own citizens. The UAE uses Israeli companies such as DarkMatter and NSO Group, staffed by Israeli cyber experts, to hack phones, gather intelligence and monitor Islamists, other dissidents and other Gulf leaders. Many Israeli military and security specialists also work for Emirati companies, and have often been hired as mercenaries since the Arab uprisings of 2010/2011.
Although the 13 August normalisation deal is a victory for Israel, which seeks legitimacy among Arab states in order to make the Palestinians irrelevant in international affairs, the Emiratis also scored big in the deal, or so they initially thought. The package included a US agreement to sell F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi in a multi-million-dollar-sale. The UAE had been looking for ways to acquire F-35s as it seeks to present itself militarily as the region’s emerging hegemon. Netanyahu, however, quickly denied these Emirati claims that F-35 acquisition had been secured, emphasising that Israel remained opposed to the sale of advanced weapons to Arab countries. Israel’s opposition to the sale of the jets to the UAE created tensions in the new alliance. Abu Dhabi cancelled the meeting that was to mark the official and ceremonial signing of the normalisation agreement in protest against Netanyahu’s opposition to the F-35 sale. Meanwhile, conflicting sentiments have emerged from the White House.
Differences also quickly emerged about Emirati claims that the normalisation agreement included an end to Israeli plans for the annexation of the West Bank. Within hours of the deal’s announcement, Netanyahu confirmed his commitment to annexation, saying it only been delayed, not cancelled. Kushner supported the Israeli prime minister, clarifying that the annexation was only temporarily halted to allow Israel to focus on strengthening its relations with Gulf countries. Clearly, the Emiratis failed in their attempts to win Arab support by packaging normalisation with Israel as a move to support Palestinians.
The attendance of Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the USA, at the unveiling of Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ in January had already indicated the increasing Emirati disregard for Palestinians. In drafting Trump’s plan, Kushner had consulted widely with Gulf countries – especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These countries had formed part of the process despite the fact that no Palestinians had been consulted. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and other Palestinian groups had slammed Emirati support for the heavily pro-Israel plan as the ultimate betrayal. The same sense of betrayal was expressed when the UAE-Israel deal was announced this month.
The Dahlan effect
The Emirati attitude to and interference in Palestinian affairs can be seen in the role of exiled former Fatah strongman, Mohammed Dahlan, arch enemy of PA and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas. After being expelled by Fatah, Dahlan found refuge and massive financial support in the UAE. Some of those financial resources have been dedicated to undermining Abbas to set the stage for Dahlan to capture the PA and PLO. Many Palestinians credit him for being behind the UAE-Israel deal. Dahlan, who used to be close to the CIA and the Israeli security establishment, was convicted for corruption by a Palestinian court in 2014. Since then, from exile, he has tried to to re-enter Palestinian politics and return to Palestine. The UAE, Egypt and Israel prefer him as a replacement or replacement for or successor to Abbas. He has built a support base among sections of Fatah youth in Gaza, some of the refugee camps in Lebanon, and in a few Palestinian diplomatic missions abroad.
The UAE also has a difficult relationship with Gaza-based Hamas, which it treats with hostility because of the group’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the UAE has not officially designated Hamas a terrorist group, Emirati officials refer to it as such in private, especially after the 2017 blockade on Qatar, imposed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. UAE ally Saudi Arabia has detained dozens of Hamas activists since February 2019, allegedly at Israel’s bidding.
Through Dahlan, the UAE has sponsored aid projects in Gaza. In May and June this year, the UAE also sent two planeloads of COVID-19 aid to Israel for Palestinians in the West Bank. The first plane landed in Tel Aviv in May, unmarked, while the second plane bore the Etihad airline logo and the UAE flag, marking significant strides in UAE-Israel relations. Despite being cash strapped and battling the pandemic, the PA rejected both planeloads, viewing Emirati coordination with Israel (and the lack of consultation with Palestinians) as a betrayal. The recent normalisation deal emphasised this sense of betrayal; protests against it erupted in both the West Bank and Gaza, with protesters burning pictures of the UAE crown prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Dahlan, Trump and Netanyahu.
Other Gulf states may follow
Oman and Bahrain, both of which immediately praised the UAE-Israel agreement, are expected to follow the Emiratis, allowing Israel to realise its long-time dream of normalisation with regional states while isolating the Palestinians. Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, and his Omani counterpart, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, have already discussed strengthening bilateral ties. The USA hoped that plans to normalise might be announced soon, and the recent regional tour of Kushner and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was aimed to finalise these plans. Pompeo’s trip to Bahrain on 26 August did not yield the hoped-for results, however, as the Bahraini king emphasised the creation of a Palestinian state. Sudan’s transitional government also backtracked. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco have reiterated their stance not to normalise relations with Israel until a peace deal with Palestinians is reached. However, this does not preclude relations taking place secretly.
Secret relations persist between Israel and certain Gulf countries, as well as some Arab states in Africa. Before Bahrain, Pompeo visited Khartoum and met the Sudanese prime minister, Abdullah Hamdok, who disputed claims that his country will normalise relations with Israel, despite Sudanese officials having secretly met Netanyahu in February to discuss normalisation. Despite Sudan’s transitional government issuing conflicting statements on the matter, an 18 August meeting between Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and member of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti), in Abu Dhabi suggests that that closed door relations will take place despite Hamdok’s statement.
To understand how divisions have further deepened after Israel and the UAE agreed on Thursday to establish diplomatic relations in a United States-brokered deal, we have asked an expert on the matter, Matshidiso Motsoeneng, who is currently a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a research institute based in Johannesburg, South Africa to join. She's on Skype.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has described the US middle east plan as another apartheid. The US plan proposes to allow Israel to annex all its illegal settlements as well as the strategic Jordan Valley. Israel has imposed a ban on the export of Palestinian farm produce via Jordan. In an escalating trade war, this will make it impossible for farmers in the occupied West Bank to connect with markets around the world. The Palestinians have described the export ban as a dangerous action. Palestine said the Israeli move is part of a dispute that began in October when their authorities ordered a halt to the import of calves from ranches in Israel. They said at the time they wanted to decrease their dependency on the Israeli market. But Israel saw the move as a breach of a trade agreement. Matshidiso Motsoeneng is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a think tank based in Johannesburg. She joins us via Skype for more on this.