Dore Gold for JC Aug 2020
Dr Dore Gold, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, an adviser on foreign affairs to two Israeli prime ministers, and a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, must have been one of the few people in the country not to be surprised at the news of a prospective peace deal with the United Arab Emirates.
After all, the American-born Dr Gold opened a small economic office in the UAE in 2015; and as a knowledgeable and expert observer of relations between Israel and the Arab states, he is better placed than most to judge the pace of Israel’s outreach to the Arab world.
In a wide-ranging conversation with the JC this week, Dr Gold, president of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, said that the pragmatic response of Arab countries said to be falling into line behind the UAE — including Oman, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and Qatar — was driven not only by a mutual fear and distrust of Iran, the acknowledged regional enemy, but also by concern at the machinations of Turkey. President Erdogan, believes Dr Gold, “is trying to revive the status of Turkey going back to the Ottoman Empire”.
In his long diplomatic career Dore Gold has seen many anomalies in the relationships between Israel and the Arab world. As far back as 1996, he says, when he first came into government as foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu, “I visited a number of countries, including Qatar and Oman, where we had economic offices. They weren’t embassies, but we sought to extend the nature of the representation that we had in these countries.
“I remember speaking to a foreign minister in Qatar and saying, would it be so bad if we issued visas to Qatari citizens who want to visit Israel? Because once you are issuing visas, you are not just engaging in economic work, you are also engaging in diplomatic and political work. He said yes. I don’t know how long that lasted. But it was an effort we made to take whatever we had, and build on it.”
Israel was making serious efforts to broaden its contacts in the Arab world, Dr Gold says: as long ago as 1996 he went to Paris for a meeting with a senior Saudi diplomat. “Israel was very bullish in its foreign policy, trying to bring in more contacts”.
Meanwhile, in the United Nations, where Dr Gold served as Israel’s ambassador between 1997 and 1999, “so many ironic relationships emerged. I recall getting a message, given to me by a driver, to meet the foreign minister of an Arab country, with which we did not have diplomatic relations, at one of the nicest hotels in Manhattan’.
A few days later Dr Gold was having a “very friendly conversation” with the Egyptian ambassador at the UN. “He was standing with the ambassador of that same Arab country. The foreign minister had invited me to his suite. His ambassador turned his head and looked the other way.”
In another incident at the UN, “there was an African country with a Muslim majority, whose ambassador was head of the committee for the inalienable rights of the Palestinians. He was speaking to the General Assembly. He finished this fire and brimstone speech and I was sitting at the Israel desk. He walked down to the plenum and came directly to me. Rather chummily, he said: ‘Dore, maybe you could take me for lunch at one of your kosher restaurants?” Dr Gold obliged. Today, he says, Israel and the country have full diplomatic relations.
“The point here is that countries are driven by a keen understanding of their interests. If their interests lead them to closer ties with Israel, they will pursue them. First, perhaps in a hidden way, but later in an overt way”.
In theory, today, Dr Gold says, Israel can talk to almost every Arab country. Just the same, he says, “don’t hold your breath” in terms of expecting a slew of other countries to fall in behind the UAE in going public on relations with Israel.
A mutual distrust of Iran is not the only thing that concerns the Arab states, he says. “Look at Egypt, where we have full peace. It illustrates the problems in the Middle East today; because besides Iran, they include difficulties with the radical Sunni world. When the West was waging war in western Iraq and southern Syria, against Sunni radicals, although it seemed that it had defeated those al-Qaeda affiliates, they transferred the war to Egyptian Sinai. And they were giving the Egyptian army a very hard time. And even President Sisi admitted that Israel had been a big help in this struggle. That would be the kind of story that Israel would never, ever disclose — but Sisi disclosed it.”
Dr Gold says this shows that “if you’re sitting in Cairo, your number one concern is Sunni extremists in Sinai. If you’re in the Gulf states, your number one concern is Iran”.
Of the biggest player in the region, Saudi Arabia, Dr Gold says “the jury is still out”. He says he had a number of meetings with the leader of a Jeddah think-tank, General Anwar Eshki, in Rome, New Delhi, and culminating in a long session in front of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC in 2015. “We had a joint Saudi-Israel presentation in public in which we harshly condemned President Obama’s negotiations with Iran.” Eshki, whose background was Saudi military intelligence, was permitted to have at least nine or 10 meetings with Dore Gold.
He is well aware of some of the harsh lessons of realpolitik in the region. Speaking about a possible follow-up to the UAE, Sudan, Dr Gold says “we were extremely cognisant of the fact that the former president was wanted by the international Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur.
“I was director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and I had meetings in Europe with senior [European] foreign ministry officials and asking, what do we do? We want to reach out to Sudan, but the guy is wanted for genocide and we, Israel, survivors of the Holocaust, can’t take that lightly. And I remember one of the officials, from the top tier of European countries, said, well, Dore, we can’t always be so principled. It was so slimy. You have to come up with a response that doesn’t burn your bridges, but that is impossible to accept.
“Israel wants to broaden the scope of its peace treaties, but on the other hand you have certain principles. If you’re not going to be highly regarded in the editorials of Western newspapers, so what? If you give up on those principles, what do you become?
Of its immediate neighbours, Dr Gold believes that Israel would certainly “pick up the gauntlet” to offer economic assistance to Lebanon, while warning that it “is not an independent country. It has become an extension of Iran through Hizbollah”. Such a point has to be made repeatedly in discussion with European countries, Dr Gold says.
He does not offer much sympathy for the suggestion that Arab states seeking rapprochement with Israel have thrown the Palestinians under a bus. “I think the Palestinians have thrown themselves under a bus, and burned their bridges with many Arab allies.
“In 2015, when I was director-general of the Foreign Ministry, I led a team to an Arab country for a dialogue with my opposite number. He, who I will call Mohammed, said, do you want to read your bullet [points]? I said, why not? And I began to read them out, I had 13 bullets. I got to about the fifth and looked at him, and he had a snicker on his face. I said, did I do something to offend you? He said, no, it’s just that your bullets are identical to mine”.
For Dr Gold, this underscores the point that “our vital interests and those of the Arab world have begun to really coalesce. And that makes great opportunity for dramatic breakthroughs. I am optimistic with respect to what can be done”.