The Saudi Spy Chief Who Pioneered Secret Relations With Israel

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The former head of Saudi intelligence and its National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, met for years with Jewish leaders, Mossad chiefs and prime ministers

This week, there are Israelis who are trying to take credit for U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel, during which he will try to promote additional steps toward normalization between the two countries. But the naked truth is that the person who deserves full credit for the rapprochement between Riyadh and Jerusalem is actually a Saudi: Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Bandar, 73, is the son of Crown Prince Sultan (who died in 2011, before becoming king) and a woman of Ethiopian descent. His grandfather, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, was the founded of Saudi Arabia and its first king. In his youth, Bandar underwent training in the British and U.S. air forces, and in 1977, as a combat pilot, he survived a crash.

In the period following the September 11, 2001 attacks Bandar’s ties with the Bush family worked as a boomerang.

Later, he went to the U.S., studied at Johns Hopkins University and in 1983 was appointed the Saudi ambassador to Washington, where he also began to gradually foster ties with Israel.

 

At first, there were indirect contacts with Saudi Arabia, which took place primarily via the leaders of Jewish organizations in the U.S. The fact that the Saudi ambassador met with them was no small thing. At the time, the Wahhabi kingdom barred Jews from entering. Bandar later told his Israeli interlocutors that the reason for fostering ties was his desire to understand how the Jewish organizations operate and how they influence the branches of government.

He wanted to start a Saudi influence network, similar to American Jewish supporters of Israel. And in fact, thanks to his abilities, Bandar managed to nurture close personal ties with several U.S. presidents beginning with Ronald Reagan, and in particular with George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush. The lobby he established in Washington even helped him to fend off opposition by Israel and the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC to several Saudi arms deals with the U.S.

During his diplomatic tenure, Bandar was the driving force behind a series of weapons deals totaling tens of billions of dollars, which included the purchase of F-15 and F-16 combat planes and Early Warning and Control System aircraft. His name was also mentioned in a huge and controversial deal with Great Britain, in which he was suspected of having received a bribe totaling 1 billion pounds.

In the period following the September 11, 2001 attacks Bandar’s ties with the Bush family worked as a boomerang. The fact that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi, and that Saudi terrorists who received donations from Saudi foundations were involved in the attacks, ignited tremendous anger among the U.S. public against the kingdom in general and its ambassador in particular.
From an initiative to ties
 
The start of Saudi involvement in attempts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict is often dated to 2002, when the Arab Peace Initiative was presented. In fact, it began much earlier. Already in 1981, Crown Prince Fahd (who became king a year later) initiated a peace plan between Israel and the Arab countries.
 

The plan, which was adopted a year later by the Arab League, included eight points, the most important of which were total Israeli withdrawal from all the territories captured in 1967, recognition of the Palestinian right of return or the payment of compensation to those who didn’t want to return, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, freedom of worship for believers from all religions in Jerusalem’s Holy Basin, and the dismantling of all Israeli settlements.

The plan was rejected by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but it also contained several new ideas, foremost among them de facto recognition of Israel within the borders as they stood on June 4, 1967, and an end to “the three nos” of the August 1967 Khartoum Summit – no to recognition of Israel, no to negotiations, no to peace.

The Fahd peace plan was the basis for accelerating ties with Israel, at the initiative of Prince Bandar, who was appointed ambassador to the U.S. two years later. Bandar’s first meeting with an Israeli official, Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, took place in Washington in the early 1990s, after the Gulf War and the election of Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister.

 

In the three decades or so since, Mossad heads and at least two prime ministers – Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu – have met with Saudi officials, although not with the king himself. The meetings usually took place in Europe, but also in Jordan, Egypt and in recent years in Saudi Arabia itself. As is customary, the Mossad chief is accompanied at such meetings by the head of Tevel, the organization’s political action and foreign liaison division, or at least the head of the station in the country where the meeting takes place. We can assume that the present Mossad chief David Barnea has also met with the Saudis.

 

November 1984: Crown Prince Fahd visits then-President Ronald Reagan.
November 1984: Crown Prince Fahd visits then-President Ronald Reagan.Credit: Bob Daugherty / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Following Shavit, Mossad directors Ephraim Halevy and Meir Dagan also met with Prince Bandar. During Dagan’s tenure, Saudi Arabia, at the time under the leadership of Crown Prince (and later king) Abdullah, promoted the aforementioned Arab Peace Initiative. The initiative was actually a revival of the Fahd plan, but also expanded it by endorsing, for the first time, a normalization of relations with Israel.

 

This initiative was also approved by the Arab League. What propelled the clandestine ties were three issues that continue to be the keystones of Israeli-Saudi relations: the shared fear of Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s efforts to achieve regional hegemony, and the Saudi desire to purchase modern technology and weapons made in Israel.

 

Another historic moment that helped to foster even closer ties took place in 2005, with the conclusion of Bandar’s term in Washington and his appointment as head the Saudi National Security Council. In 2012, he was appointed head of the Saudi intelligence agency and held the two positions alternately until 2015. In the context of these positions, he was involved in overt and covert diplomatic processes related to many issues in the Middle East, including Iran, Lebanon, the Syrian Civil War and Russia’s intervention, and of course, Israel and the Palestinians.

 

Bandar’s discussions with Dagan, and later his meeting with Olmert in Amman, centered mainly on Iran. Even then, the prince, and the entire Saudi royal family, saw the Islamic Republic and its support for the Shi’ites in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as the greatest threat to them. For that reason, they encouraged Israel to act with all the means at its disposal to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.

 

According to foreign reports, Dagan attempted in these discussions to receive Riyadh’s consent for allowing Israel Air Force planes to use Saudi airspace, should Israel decide to attack. It’s not clear what the Saudi reply was, but we can assume that as long as such an attack wasn’t exposed and didn’t embarrass them, they would not have objected.

 

Another assumption is that Saudi Arabia considers Syrian President Bashar Assad an enemy, and that its intelligence agency even initiated several assassination attempts against him. Therefore, officials in Riyadh didn’t shed a tear when Israel attacked the nuclear reactor in Deir el-Zour in September 2007. During the Second Lebanon War, Saudi Arabia urged Israel to strike forcefully at Hezbollah, prevented Arab countries from taking steps to end the war, and was disappointed when Israel agreed to a cease-fire. No less than its hatred for Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia also considers Hamas a dangerous enemy that threatens stability in the region.

 

Former Mossad director Meir Dagan.
Former Mossad director Meir Dagan.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

From contacts to meetings

 

Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas were also the focus of Bandar’s contacts during the term of former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, beginning in 2011. According to foreign sources, Pardo and Tevel representatives met with the prince in Europe, including on his estate in the U.K. The most important meeting took place in August 2014, at the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, when the prince summoned Israeli security chiefs to Saudi Arabia.

 

That was the first time Israelis serving in official positions had arrived in the kingdom. They flew in a private plane that made a brief stop in Amman and continued on to Bandar’s palace in Jeddah. There, with the approval of King Abdullah, the two sides spent many hours discussing a far-reaching initiative designed to establish peace in the Middle East.

 

Bandar drew up a road map for an agreement with the Palestinians, which was based on the previous peace initiatives, but this time Israel was granted the option of making changes to the plan. In a gesture of support, Saud al-Faisal, Saudi foreign minister at the time, sent a placatory message when he accused Hamas of responsibility for the destruction of the Gaza Strip and called for coexistence with Israel.

 

During the secret contacts in Jeddah, Bandar suggested that Foreign Minister Al-Faisal and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend the UN General Assembly in September 2014 and, in the presence of all the foreign ministers of the Arab countries, approve the road map, which calls for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and full diplomatic relations and normalization between Israel and most Arab countries.

 

Because the meeting was prolonged, Bandar gave the order to fly the Israeli entourage back to Israel in his private plane – a luxurious Airbus with gold accessories. Defense establishment leaders hastened to report on the discussions to Netanyahu, and Netanyahu agreed to the idea. Later, he twice flew to Europe by himself in order to hear the details of the proposal from Bandar personally, and at the conclusion of the meetings he informed the Saudi prince that from then on, the contacts on his behalf would be conducted by his personal envoy, attorney Yitzhak Molcho.

 

A Hezbollah rally in Baalbek, Lebanon.
A Hezbollah rally in Baalbek, Lebanon.Credit: AFP

But time went by and nothing happened. Netanyahu got cold feet and, along with Molcho, let the proposal fizzle out, and another historic opportunity for a regional arrangement was lost. The disappointed Bandar felt humiliated, and in his anger he disdainfully told someone who met him words to the effect that “He [Netanyahu] considers himself Churchill, but he isn’t Churchill. He can’t lie to all the people all the time.” He broke off contact with Israel and in 2015 resigned from his position after losing favor with the new king, Salman.

 

Bandar was replaced as the most important person in the kingdom – not only in terms of the connection with Israel – by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who represents a new generation in Saudi Arabia. He is determined to lead the country into a new era, including by reducing its economy’s reliance on the oil industry. Like his predecessors, and perhaps even more so, he considers Iran to be the greatest threat.

 

After the crown prince’s entry into the arena, Saudi-Israeli ties continued to flourish via the Mossad, and he met with Netanyahu, Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. During one of the meetings, which Israel publicized to the disapproval of the crown prince, the three flew to the resort city of Neom in the northwest of the kingdom, on the shores of the Red Sea. We can assume that senior Israel Defense Force officers, including then-Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, were seen in the company of Saudi officials.

 

Benjamin Netanyahu displays a cartoon bomb diagram at the UN, 2012.
Benjamin Netanyahu displays a cartoon bomb diagram at the UN, 2012.Credit: AP

From meetings to business

 

Even now, the same issues and the same interests are at the center of contacts on the Jerusalem-Riyadh axis: Exchanging diplomatic assessments, exchanging intelligence information, joint battles against Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas, al-Qaida and Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is also purchasing more and more security and technological equipment, cyber and intelligence tools from Israel, including NSO’s infamous Pegasus spyware. Recently, there have also been increasing reports that Saudi Arabia is considering the purchase of aerial defense systems from Israel.

 

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said a few days ago during a briefing with military correspondents that in the past two years, Israeli firms and the Defense Ministry have signed arms and security export deals with Sunni countries (excluding Jordan and Egypt) totaling $3 billion. Presumably, a respectable percentage of that sum is from Saudi Arabia. Along with that, there is also an acceleration of civilian transactions and cooperative projects in the areas of agriculture, water, medical equipment and high-tech. Hundreds of Israelis with foreign citizenship have been traveling freely in recent months to Saudi Arabia, and civilian aircraft on their way to and from Israel are using its airspace.

 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.Credit: Hassan Ammar / AP

During his visit to the Middle East, Biden will try to draw up a plan for a regional cooperation agreement with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf nations, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, for defense from Iran’s missiles and drones. Along with all the celebrations that will be part of the visit, it is important to emphasize that even if a plan is reached, it won’t be an official defense alliance, especially as long as there is no progress towards a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians and as long as Salman is king.

 

There was no response to a request from Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson for a reaction to this article.

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