How Obama Dismantled Israel’s Gulf Line against Iran
Three years ago, US President George W. Bush green-lighted a program for the deployment of an Israeli Defense Forces special unit to the Persian Gulf to train thousands of Arab Emirates security, military and intelligence operatives in tactics for protecting their regimes, oil facilities, sea and air ports and other strategic installations.
This program, revealed now exclusively for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, was worked out between the US president, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and the two defense chiefs, Robert Gates and Ehud Barak (both of whom stayed on to serve the present administrations).
When the program took shape In March 2007, the Americans were still caught up in brutal confrontation with al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents in Iraq, the troop surge which turned the corner of the war was still in preparation; Taliban was going from strength to strength in Afghanistan against undermanned US-led NATO forces; and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states were bombarding the Bush administration with questions about how America proposed to curtail Iran's nuclear program and rein in its expanding influence across the Middle East.
Their anxieties had deepened when the IDF came out of the Lebanon war six months earlier without mortally injuring Hizballah. Instead of being cut down in Lebanon, Hizballah's sponsor Iran came out of that conflict more arrogant and capable of menacing its neighbors than ever before. .
Availability, trust, and location
The thinking in Washington at the time was that, since the United States was hard-pressed on the three fronts of Iraq, Afghanistan and terror, with no military strength to spare for building up a Persian Gulf defense force, Israel's military, using innovative combat techniques developed on the battlefields of Lebanon, was well qualified to bring the Gulf states' armies up to scratch. This exercise would go far toward putting the Gulf rulers' minds at rest on their vulnerability to Iran's roving eye.
American strategists saw four benefits in the program:
1. It would put to good use Israel's military, security and intelligence forces, freshly seasoned by the Lebanon war and available after the ceasefire in sufficient numbers to undertake a large-scale mission without strain.
2. By introducing Israeli security personnel to the Persian Gulf as trainers for the local elite units, the Bush administration would win kudos for encompassing the Jewish state's biggest diplomatic breakthrough to the Arab world. True, this was only to be a covert operation, but establishing military-intelligence ties between Israeli and Gulf emirates would engender relations of trust and pave the way to solving the Middle East conflict by peace diplomacy.
3. Israel's military role in Gulf defenses let President Bush off the hook of appealing to the Western Europe governments, with whom he was on bad terms, for military back-up strength. In any case, he did not trust their military and intelligence capabilities or credibility, unlike the faith he had in those of Israel.
4. The project would position hundreds of Israeli elite forces and field intelligence veterans a short distance from Iranian shores, a presence easily convertible into a forward position against Iran. This would partly compensate Israel for its failure to beat Iran's Lebanese proxy into the ground. In other words, President Bush was willing to offer Israel the strategic-intelligence edge which eluded it in the Lebanon war.
Riyadh: No Israelis wanted – only their combat techniques
The Israeli teams started moving over to their new posts in May, 2007, after Washington obtained the consent of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE to the scheme, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and intelligence sources report. Special new bases were established for the operation in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The instruction teams included commando unit veterans from Shaldag (equivalent to the US Delta Force), Flotilla 13, (the Israeli Navy's version of the US Navy Seals), General Security Services special operations units (equivalent to CIA and FBI covert units) and elite units of the Israeli Police and Border Patrol.
Arriving in the Gulf (although not Saudi Arabia) disguised as Europeans, the Israeli instructors got straight down to their duties and set up three-month courses for local military, security and intelligence personnel with 300 men in each course. In their 30-month stay in the Gulf, the Israeli experts trained 10 classes, producing a total of 3,000 graduates who went on to form the UAE special operations outfit now known in Washington as the Gulf Protection Force.
According to our sources, the Saudis, while approving the operation in principle, declined to send their troops over for training with Israelis for two reasons: In the first place, it was – and still is – unthinkable for them to put their men in the hands of Israeli instructors and, in the second, sending them to the Arab emirates for training would be an affront to their dignity and undercut their standing as regional power.
Abu Dhabi, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain had no such inhibitions and welcomed high-prestige Israeli military assistance with a will.
Bush opens Gulf door to Israel, Obama pushes Israelis out
By the second half of 2008, Riyadh saw the first results of the Israeli training programs – and admitted to being impressed. Loath to fall behind their Arab neighbors in military skills, the Saudis asked President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to send American military instructors to the kingdom to teach Saudi units the same combat techniques as the Israelis were imparting to the emirate armies in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Washington was thunderstruck by this request. Five years earlier, the Saudi king had forced every last US solider to quit Saudi soil. Now they were asking for a small number, no more than a few dozen, US guerilla warfare experts, to return.
President Bush's opening up of the Persian Gulf, a key strategic location for the US as a world superpower, to an Israeli military and intelligence presence, had more than one antagonist at home, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington report. One of them was his own secretary of defense, Robert Gates. But the president was able to convince Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus of the military and intelligence benefits of the Israeli Gulf program and they signed off on it.
But then, even before Barack Obama was elected president at the end of 2008, many of his advisers began pushing for him to remove Israeli forces from the Gulf as a first priority. They maintained that no real and effective engagement with Iran would be possible as long as Israeli special forces were a three-hour ferry-boat journey from Revolutionary Guards Corps headquarters at Bandar Abbas.
The opposition to an Israeli presence in the Gulf gained traction from Obama's decision to pull US forces out of Iraq by the summer of 2011. Replacing Israeli instructors with Americans would fill the military void left in the Gulf by the US departure from Iraq – so ran the argument – and install Washington up on a strategic Gulf perch for engaging Iran in negotiations from a position of strength.
Israel believed the Americans had bigger fish to fry
Binyamin Netanyahu took up his post as Israeli premier in March 2009, two months after Obama was sworn in as president. The new president thereupon launched his campaign for Israel to abandon its training programs for the Gulf armies. The demand was raised at the very first encounters between the incoming US and Israeli leaders' advisers and was pressed again at their first face-to-face meetings.
But Netanyahu, who appreciated the immense intelligence value of Israel's Gulf presence against Iran, dug in his heels and insisted that the program was an integral part of the broad US-Israeli understandings on a joint effort to end Iran's nuclear weapons program. He argued that for Jerusalem to continue to trust in US policy on Iran and other matters, the Obama administration must uphold the Bush administration's strategic commitments to Israel.
From the second half of July to early September 2009, Washington stopped badgering Jerusalem on the subject. And it was not raised when Obama and Netanyahu met in Washington on Nov. 9.
The next day, the US and Israel launched Juniper Cobra 10, their biggest joint military exercise ever, for drilling their defenses against synchronized missile attacks by Iran and its three allies.
Jerusalem assumed the Americans, with bigger fish to fry, had dropped their demand for Israel to quit its Gulf training program.
But the Israelis were wrong. The Obama administration had gone to work at the other end of the scheme.
And indeed, in early December 2009, the UAE ruler, Emir Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, notified Israel that the program's current course would be the last one. Its instructors would be asked to leave after graduation a few days hence.
Many find second ulterior motive in Mabhouh killing
At first al-Nahyan evaded explanations, but as the last week of December and exit time neared, he admitted he had been coerced by the Americans to send the Israelis home and replace them with Americans.
It was then that the penny dropped, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report: Netanyahu, defense minister Ehud Barak and Chief of staff Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi got the message that the Obama administration would go out of its way and do whatever necessary to hold Israel back from striking Iran's nuclear facilities.
When Minister Barak went to Washington on February 25, he asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gates how Israel was expected to defend itself in the face of a hostile Iran now that the US had dismantled its first line of defense against the Islamic Republic.
Barak received no answer. The anger and concern rankled in Jerusalem and reached-boiling point when Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel last week, especially when he accompanied avowals of the Obama administration's undying commitment to Israel's security with heavy-handed pressure away from the public eye against an Israeli attack on Iran. In the circumstances, the announcement of a long-term 1,600-unit housing scheme of Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem may have looked to the Netanyahu government as no more than a mild gesture of protest.
Washington's action also drew a response in another unexpected quarter, Riyadh – more about which in the next article.
Some intelligence mavens in Washington speculate that the assassination of the Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai on Jan. 19 was motivated by more than the obvious wish to sever a Hamas-arms supply link with Iran. It may have been meant to demonstrate that Israeli instructors did not waste their two years in Dubai and, even after being pushed out, can find their way back to this stamping ground when needs must.