In this post, Matteo Bulzomi explores Israel’s use of its intelligence services to achieve its diplomatic and foreign policy goals. He argues that Israel’s intelligence capabilities are key for understanding its external affairs and relationships with foreign countries, especially the United States.
Israel’s position in the international panorama has always been problematic. The never-solved Palestinian issue is the main cause of a harsh diplomatic embargo that the Jewish State leadership has been facing ever since the state’s foundation. The main promoters of such a strategy, albeit not the only ones, are Arab and/or Muslim leaders. For this reasons, Israel has always had to cope with several problems. The main one is a state of continuous security uncertainty. Over the decades, the relationships with its Muslim neighbouring countries have often been tense, with many military confrontations taking place. Even non-state actors, such as political organisations, have played a key role in this respect.
To tackle the issue, Israeli leaders have forged a three-dimension strategy. First, they sought to ensure Israel’s military primacy over its enemies. Second, they kept close ties with Western powers, especially those who have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. By doing so, Israel hopes to gain political support before the international community, to be part of an economic system in which to prosper and to get the weaponry needed to ensure its military edge. Finally, they heavily invested resources in setting up a formal and informal diplomatic network able to break Israeli isolation.
According to this strategic doctrine, intelligence agencies embody a very important role. Arguably, no other state in the world uses its intelligence agencies to pursue its diplomatic agenda to the same extent as the Jewish State. The possibilities to exchange information by using its intelligence services, whose efficiency is now famous worldwide, was revealed in many cases to be crucial in getting the favour of suspicious actors. And even though the intelligence-based collaboration had to run through informal channels, it did succeed in reaching both Israel’s strategic and diplomatic goals. On the strategic dimension, Israel was able to acquire some important secrets belonging to its enemies. On the diplomatic one, it broke its isolation by establishing relations with actors that would not have been interested in doing it by other means, like several Muslim countries.
This intelligence exchange-based diplomacy is based on the reputation of Israeli intelligence bodies, which is deeply linked to the historical and cultural background of the Jewish State. The very fact that Israelis come from different cultures is indeed a key advantage for the country’s HUMINT. The possibility to recruit a suitable operator for nearly every scenario makes it easier to work all across the world independently, a capability that other espionage corps do not always have. Moreover, the strict contacts between Israel and the Diaspora enable the former to get a massive flood of both open and closed source information from everywhere, which allows a more accurate analysis of the field when needed. Finally, the constant state of war that the Palestine region has suffered from over the last decades required state institutions to always develop proper solutions to meet the population’s demands for security. This brought two consequences. First, it stimulated Israeli security bodies’ creativity in developing modern counter-guerrilla and counter-insurgency tactics, which could be exported to their allies. Second, it channelled Israeli defence investments into the most advanced technologies, such as IT. For this reason, the Jewish State’s expertise in the cyber-security field is well appreciated and, once again, it could be a strategic asset to share.
Shortly after Israel became an independent state in 1948, the espionage corps was used to gain partners in Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Middle East. The first major partner of the Jewish State in the Western bloc was France. The French have long provided the Israel Defence Forces with the most advanced weapon systems. However, starting in 1954, with the war in Algeria against the filo-Nasserist National Liberation Front, the French leadership started to consider the possibility of diminishing weapons transfers to Israel. In this way, they hoped to stop the Nasserist wave by appeasing NLF sympathizers, who backed the anti-Zionist cause. When Israeli officials were informed about that, they decided to play the “intelligence card”. In that period the Aman, or Israeli military intelligence, had managed to acquire several important pieces of information about NLF. When they offered to share such a resource with the French, the weapon supply issue was no longer questioned. In doing so, the Franco-Israeli espionage partnership helped to ensure both French power in Algeria and the Israeli military edge in the Middle East. Furthermore, France supported Israel in its efforts to help Maghreb Jews leave their countries and reach the Jewish State. Deliveries to Israel continued until the mid-1960s, when Paris decided to pursue a more balanced policy in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region.
Shortly after, France was replaced by another partner: The United States. At first, Washington’s attitude toward Israel was rather suspicious. Israeli leaders were generally socialists, albeit not Soviet-oriented. Moreover, the US did not want to compromise their ties with the Arab world. Once again, Israeli intelligence won over American officials and helped the Israeli government to reach its goal. On a cyclical basis, Eastern bloc authorities used to issue some exit permits to their Jewish citizens to let them migrate to Israel. As the Socialist bloc did not grant such permits easily, Jews had long been the only legal immigrants from that world, which made them a unique window into everyday life behind the Iron Curtain. Fully aware of that, the Shin Bet, or Israeli domestic intelligence, started to collect reports from them and to share their analysis with the US. But this was not all. On two occasions, Israeli intelligence was able to seize Soviet bloc top secrets. In 1956, a Polish Jew gave the Shin Bet a copy of USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the XX Party Congress, which was top secret. When Washington received the speech, it got precious insight into the post-Stalin Soviet leadership. Ten years later, the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, managed to persuade Munir Radfa, an Iraqi military pilot, to defect in favour of Israel onboard a USSR-manufactured Mig-21 plane. As obtaining Mig-21 technology was a top priority for both Israel and the United States, such a move marked a new milestone in the bilateral Israeli-American relationship. For these reasons, when France inaugurated its more measured policy toward the Jewish State, the US rapidly stepped in and filled the vacuum, becoming Israel’s closest sponsor.
A crucial date for Israel-MENA relations was 1956. The Suez Crisis caused Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s popularity to skyrocket all across the region. His support for pan-Arab movements abroad together with the political and military backing he received from the Soviet Union concerned many actors. Western powers feared Soviet influence in an oil-rich nation. Israel deemed that the Russian weapons Egypt was receiving were a direct threat to its military primacy in the region. Finally, non-Nasserist MENA leaders were deeply preoccupied with the growth of pan-Arabist and socialist movements at home, which could jeopardize their rule. Consequently, thanks to US sponsorship, Israel started its talks with anti-socialist actors like Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia and Morocco. Given the Muslim majority of most of its partners, Israel was aware that its troublesome reputation was a remarkable obstacle to the task. Once again, its intelligence capacities made the difference. In fact, the general pattern of the so-called “peripheral cooperation” was that Israel would provide its allies with weapons and intelligence, enabling them to counter their internal threats. On the other side, they would let Israeli intelligence operate in their territory to collect information about both its enemies and their political opponents. Besides the strategic advantages, Israel would receive the legitimacy it needed on the international stage and break its isolation in the MENA region.
Iran and Turkey used to host a small Israeli delegation in their capital cities as they did not want to irritate their most conservative Muslim citizens. Nevertheless, in 1958 they established a trilateral intelligence agreement with Israel. Israel’s role in the so-called “Trident” was to train Iranian SAVAK and Turkish NSS in counter-insurgency and counter-espionage tactics and to report them about the activities of the Nasserist and socialist movements. In exchange, Israel used their territories to perform espionage and de-stabilisation operations against its enemies, mainly Egypt, Syria and Iraq. A similar scheme was pursued with the Ethiopian Negus Hailé Selassié. In this case, the Israelis supported the Ethiopian government in its efforts to crush both the Nasserist opposition and the Eritrean secessionists. The position of Ethiopia granted Israel a useful ally in the strategic theatre of the Gulf of Aden. In particular, Israeli intelligence revealed its vital importance in 1960, when it prevented the Negus from being toppled by a group of military insurgents. Finally, since Morocco’s king Hassan II came to the throne in 1961, Israeli and Moroccan intelligence agencies started secretly cooperating. Like the previous actors, Hassan II was worried about the spread of Nasser’s ideas in his country. The Mossad thus established a singular liaison with General Mohamed Oukfir, one of the most important figures in the king’s entourage. In this framework, Israel would help the Moroccan Crown to shatter its internal enemies. In exchange, King Hassan II gave senior Israeli officials a precious insight into the inner working of the Arab League, which his country belonged to. For instance, in 1965 Israeli intelligence agencies were allowed to place some bugs in the Casablanca hotel that hosted the Arab League’s meeting. Thanks to that, Israel acquired several important secrets about Egyptian and Syrian war plans.
Even today, Israeli intelligence is involved in many delicate diplomatic missions. The most important field is the Persian Gulf. In fact, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution turned Iran into a Shiite theocratic regime, there were two important consequences. First, Tehran started pursuing a strong anti-Israel and anti-US foreign policy. Second, Iran created a network of loyal militias and Islamist political parties able to de-stabilise American allies in the region. Together with the gradual US disengagement from the region that started in the 2010s, this raised concerns in the Arab monarchies. Not surprisingly, Israel decided to fill the vacuum through its intelligence agencies. As a consequence, cooperation with the Jewish state, a taboo previously, became one of the pillars of the new balance of power in the Middle East. To this end Yossi Cohen, the former Mossad chief, paid many official and unofficial visits to Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco and Bahrain. The new Israeli-Arab cooperation is without any doubt a win-win strategy for both the actors. In this view, Israeli diplomatic isolation will smoothly fade away and the military pressure over Iran will increase. On the other side, Gulf monarchies will acquire advanced warfare systems and techniques which will enable them to counter both the Iranian threat and the internal opposition.
Featured Image: Former President Donald J. Trump holds a news conference with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 22, 2017 at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Photo taken by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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- As Trump exits, the full Mossad story on normalization comes into focus – The Jerusalem Post (jpost.com);
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- Israel and Saudi Arabia: What’s shaping the covert ‘alliance’ – BBC News;
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- Israel Is the Arab World’s New Soft Power (foreignpolicy.com);
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- Mossad listened in on Arab states’ preparations for Six-Day War (ynetnews.com);
- Netanyahu, Mossad chief fly to Saudi, hold first known meet with crown prince | The Times of Israel;
- Periphery: Israel’s search for allies in the Middle East by Yossi Alpher | Iran | The Guardian;
Matteo Bulzomì is a scholar who graduated in Historical Studies from the University of Turin, Italy. As his main field of interest is the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli question, he is set to attend a M.A. in Israel Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In particular, he aims to specialise in Israeli foreign policy and reconciliation processes between Israel and Arab actors.