As the administration of president Donald Trump exits stage left, it’s time to take stock of the four normalization deals that Israel has already signed.
But there is a crucial piece of the story that has not been emphasized.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, although the July-to-December 2020 wave of deals provided the historic photos, the turning point moments were back in 2017 and 2019, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Also, though, it has not yet signed an agreement itself, the key party was always Saudi Arabia.
Much of the de-emphasis of these points has to do with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen – whose acts were mostly shrouded in mystery until a major speech in July 2019 – who was leading the Israeli push by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
There have been multiple narratives about who really got the ball rolling between Israel, the US and the UAE, and about when was the critical turning point.
Of course, part of the complex answer is that each country in the Israel, UAE, US triad played its part.
Also, each of the countries that came afterward made its own contributions which helped form the order of who would be “in” during the Trump era and who would play “wait and see.”
But to properly understand what happened in 2020, Israeli intelligence sources would say that it is imperative to understand the behind-the-scenes role of Cohen and the Saudis and what happened in September-November 2017, and in July 2019.
TRADITIONALLY, CLANDESTINE developments with countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations fall under the realm of the Mossad.
In that respect, the Post has learned that Cohen especially distinguished himself from his start in January 2016 by not only marking goals, but establishing a unit to focus on the normalization goal.
Reports of Cohen’s travels to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and other countries without diplomatic relations with Israel started coming in the middle of his term, but he was on the travel circuit even earlier.
There were precursors like former National Security Council chief Yaakov Amidror and former Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold. There were also other Israeli intelligence figures, who are conventionally less involved with foreign countries, who got involved in the game in important ways in recent years.
One interesting departure from Mossad dominance of the normalization trend related to Sudan and Morocco.
Cohen was virtually the sole key figure paving the early path which led to normalization with the UAE, and which brought the Saudis to actively support the trend, even as they themselves have not formally crossed the line.
He was also the early middleman for Sudan and Morocco.
But at an undefined point leading up to normalization with those countries, National Security Council chief Meir Ben Shabbat, represented by “R.” or “Maoz,” a Shin Bet agent on “loan” to the NSC, took a critical role in finishing those deals.
Ben Shabbat, Maoz and, according to reporter Barak Ravid, a British-Israeli lawyer named Nick Kaufman, who had connections with the Sudanese because of his expertise in dealing with some of their International Criminal Court issues, helped smooth over a range of rough patches along the way.
Cohen would not deny that Ben Shabbat and Maoz made contributions to those normalization pushes and helped save them at various points when the US and Sudan hit temporary walls.
However, the Post has learned that even once Ben Shabbat and R. were working the Sudan and Morocco angles, Cohen’s view would be that he was still the “project manager” for the normalizations, and that he merely “subcontracted” out aspects of implementation.
In Cohen’s narrative, his direct involvement in planning the meeting between Netanyahu and chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan Lt.-Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan in Uganda in February 2020, as well as being physically present there, shows that he had gotten most of the key work done before subcontracting out later implementation measures.
Further, even as Ben Shabbat, Maoz and their team helped put out fires down the stretch, Cohen still had his hands at least partially on the wheel with additional meetings, one of which with the deputy chairman of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, was widely reported in August 2020.
Reports throughout the second half of 2020 noted Cohen hopping around the Gulf and elsewhere.
IN SOME ways, sources would say, this would lead to a new perspective on the July-December 2020 normalization wave.
Conventional wisdom is that no wave was coming until July 2020, and that there might have been no wave if UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, senior adviser to the US president Jared Kushner, his aide Avi Berkowitz, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and a variety of other players had not suddenly scrambled to a magic formula, which then paved the way for the other three normalization deals.
While recognizing each contribution to the Abraham Accords, Cohen’s narrative would be entirely different.
His version of events would look back to his major July 2019 speech at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya conference.
In that speech, he said, “The Mossad has identified at this time a rare opportunity, perhaps the first in the history of the Middle East, to reach a regional understanding that would lead to an inclusive regional peace agreement,” he said.
He added: “This creates a window of opportunity that is perhaps one-time only.”
While his speech made headlines, nothing immediately came of it. In fact, nothing came of it for another 13 months, and most viewed it as just giving out talking points which Netanyahu and a variety of other ministers were periodically issuing.
A point Cohen made in the speech saying the Mossad had set the stage for “a renewal of ties with Oman and the establishment of Foreign Ministry representation” was even met with a public rejection by Oman.
Yet, sources would indicate that in Cohen’s view, this speech was actually the key point.
He was not pontificating with generic hopeful aspirations or guessing, the way some other ministers might have been who were hearing things secondhand.
Cohen was delivering a hard-nosed assessment of the future which he knew firsthand to be on the way.
He could not predict the exact timing, but he knew that he had helped convince the Saudis as well as the UAE that normalization was the way forward, and that they would find the right moment.
The reason he could make that speech in July 2019, the Post has learned, is that ironically, even as they have not yet officially crossed the normalization line themselves, the Saudis were the key, and were committed.
In that sense, Israeli intelligence sources have indicated that a real turning point was the reported visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Tel Aviv in September 2017.
BY NOVEMBER 2017, this had led to a historic interview by then-IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot with a Saudi media outlet in which he proclaimed that Israel was now sharing classified intelligence on Iran with Riyadh.
In this light, insiders like Cohen could see the building of momentum for the events of 2020, even if they were far from inevitable, long before the general public caught on.
Then why didn’t Cohen make the July 2019 speech back in 2017?
Sources indicated that the plan was to get the other countries on board so it would build like a wave.
Saudi support in late 2017 laid the groundwork for the Mossad to have greater success in building that wave over the next 18 months, including visits by Netanyahu and other Israeli ministers to various countries.
The current Mossad chief might even say that the months when normalization happened were when it had to happen. This was because it was all part of a general vision of achieving certain common goals within the Trump administration’s framework for the Middle East.
No one knew who would win the US election in November 2020, but everyone knew that US President Joe Biden (then the Democratic challenger) had a strong shot.
From this perspective, the normalization wave had to start no later than around September, and July was about the latest it could start if time would be left for a series of countries to each make a splash by joining.
But the Palestinians needed to be given a chance first to accept the Trump administration’s peace plan, which kept getting delayed by Israeli elections, until it was finally unveiled in January 2020.
From then until July 2020, with a boost of cooperative activity between Israel and the UAE in March relating to the coronavirus, the question was timing.
Also, from that perspective, as crucial as the Kushner-Friedman-Berkowitz group, Otaiba and Ben Shabbat, “Maoz” and his team were, the big leaps forward were already made by the Mossad with the Saudis by 2017 and were getting revved up by the time of Cohen’s July 2019 speech.
Undeniably, the US, UAE and Ben Shabbat’s team helped put out major fires and used out-of-the-box thinking to create new opportunities.
The Mossad would be happy to share credit with the full cast. Certainly, the Trump administration’s approach of making deals between Israel and its neighbors at all costs created opportunities that would not have otherwise existed.
In addition, not every prediction Cohen made has come true.
After naming Oman in 2019, he was on record again in fall 2020 that Oman would sign a normalization agreement with Israel, and that still has not yet panned out.
Still, some of the key US actors saving, salvaging and signing the Abraham Accords in 2020 were not even in office in 2016, and in 2017 were still learning the lay of the land – this while the Mossad was already paving the road.
But, by and large, if many of Cohen’s seemingly audacious 2019 predictions about normalization have come true, it could be because, as a director and producer, he was already holding much of the script.