According to a report, senior military officials from Israel and Saudi Arabia met in secret US-brokered talks to discuss defense coordination against Iran.
Delegations from Riyadh, as well as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt, met with the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh in March, the the wall street journal revealed on Sunday, citing U.S. and regional officials.
The United States was represented by General Frank McKenzie, the former head of US Central Command, whose area of responsibility was expanded under Donald Trump to include Israel.
The unprecedented summit marks the first time that Israeli officials have met with such a wide range of counterparts from the Arab world, in an effort to counter the common threat of Tehran’s independence growing missile and drone capabilities.
Israel has no formal diplomatic ties with Qatar or Saudi Arabia, the region’s geopolitical heavyweight, which rivals Iran for influence.
Under the Trump administration, the majority Jewish state signed the Abraham Accords establishing formal relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, ushering in an era of closer ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The accords ended a decades-old taboo in Arab diplomacy as power and priorities in the Middle East shift: the region’s mostly autocratic governments have become indifferent to the occupation of Palestinian territories, and Israel and the Gulf States have a common enemy in Iran.
The Sharm el-Sheikh summit seems to represent a major step towards the formalization of Israeli-Saudi relations.
President Joe Biden plans to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia in mid-July, when he is expected to announce further steps in warming relations between two of the Middle East’s most powerful nations. A proposed deal is believed to include allowing Israeli commercial flights over the kingdom and Israeli approval of a plan to transfer control from Egypt over two strategic Red Sea islands to Riyadh.
Arab countries also appear increasingly keen to access sophisticated Israeli air defense technology after a series of drone strikes in recent years on oil facilities and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were reportedly carried out by Iran.
The most serious attack, claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, hit an Aramco complex in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, shutting down around 5% of global oil production and causing chaos on financial markets.
Sharm el-Sheikh summit participants reportedly agreed in principle to coordinate early notification systems when aerial threats are detected, and discussed potential decision-making processes on which country’s forces would intercept drone, ballistic or missile attacks cruising. For now, alerts would be sent via phones and computers, rather than a US-style military data-sharing system.
The meeting came after a lower-level working group made up of countries in the region discussed hypothetical threat scenarios and ways in which nations could work together to detect and counter air attacks.
The agreements were non-binding, the Journal reported, and support from political leaders would be needed to codify the notification agreements being discussed and any broader military cooperation.
In a statement, Central Command did not acknowledge the meeting but said it “maintains a strong commitment to increasing regional cooperation and developing an integrated air and missile defense architecture to protect our force and our regional partners.” .
Spokespersons for Israel and the Arab countries present did not comment on the summit. Addressing Israeli Knesset members at a briefing last week, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz described what he called the “Middle East Air Defense Alliance” as being already operational.