Secret Hopes Ambitions Essay

Two land corridors preoccupy the minds of Israeli leaders and military chiefs. One is a source of concern, the other is a source of hope: both are connected and derive from the same strategy.

The first land corridor, the one which worries Israel, is what it calls the "Shiite Crescent".

Based on the old dictum that 'my enemy’s enemy is my friend,' Israel and Saudi Arabia have increased their levels of contact with each other

It has come about through Iranian efforts to take advantage of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Tehran has established direct land links from Iran, via Shia-controlled areas in Iraq, to Syria and then on to Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon, thereby giving it a foothold in the Mediterranean.

Iran is a foe of both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Based on the old dictum that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, both countries have increased their levels of contact with each other, although most of them are secret and under the radar. But these contacts lie behind the origin of the second corridor.

Hush-hush between Saudi, Israel

Officially, Israel and Saudi are still at war. Along with other Arab nations, Saudi Arabia sent a small military contingent to fight Israel in 1948 and 1967. It declared an oil boycott on the US and European countries in 1973, in solidarity with Egypt and Syria when they fought Israel.

Saudi Arabia, according to Israeli law, is defined as "an enemy state". But since 1981, Saudi Arabia's kings and crown princes have increased their involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace efforts. They have issued several plans to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saudi Arabia's then-foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in 2002 at a meeting to reactivate peace talks with Israel (AFP)

The Arab League peace initiative, also known as the "Saudi Initiative", was adopted in 2002 and reconfirmed at another Arab Summit meeting in 2007.

The initiative calls for normal relations between the Arab world and Israel, in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. It also suggests a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee problem, based on UN Resolution 194, which dates from 1948.

All these meetings and encounters are top secret: Israeli officials know that any confirmation would be highly embarrassing to the House of Saud

Since then, ties between the two countries have evolved around shared interests, especially during the past two decades. In particular, both want to stop Tehran’s efforts to produce a nuclear bomb, as well as its ambitions for regional hegemony, as reflected in its direct - and indirect - involvement in the wars in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

As a result of this shared strategic outlook, Israeli officials, military and intelligence chiefs have occasionally met with their Saudi counterparts.

There are reports that Mossad chiefs have met with the heads of Saudi intelligence agencies and the chiefs of its national security council.

It was also reported that then-prime minister Ehud Olmert met with Prince Bandar Ben Sultan when he was the Saudi intelligence chief and, at the same time, the head of the Saudi national security council.

Meir Dagan, when he was head of Mossad from 2002 until 2010, discussed with Riyadh the possibility that Saudi would allow Israeli planes to fly over its airspace, should it wish to attack Iran's nuclear sites.

Meir Dagan, speaking here in 2015, held top-level meetings with his Saudi counterparts (AFP)

All these meetings and encounters are top secret: Israeli officials know that any confirmation would be highly embarrassing to the House of Saud.

From Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, there is only general and vague talk about growing shared interests with the "Sunni world". But every expert and observer knows that such words are a coded reference to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and even Qatar (which is currently in dispute with Gulf neighbours and Saudi Arabia)

Every now and then, an aside throws some light on the situation. During his visit to Poland on 28 June, Yariv Levin, Israel’s minister of tourism, said he had asked the US to help talks between his ministry and several states in the Gulf.

Israel's rail ambitions

It’s here we arrive at that other land corridor: railroads linking Israel, via Jordan, to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and UAE.

The Mediterranean port of Haifa, which Israel hopes will boost its role as a landbridge (AFP)

Israel has a 60km railroad from the port of Haifa to Biet Shean in the Jordan Valley. It wants to extend the line by another 6km to the Israeli-Jordanian border crossing. This would allow goods to be ferried by train, not trucks, to and from Jordan.

The next stage, according to the Israeli plan, is that Jordan would build its own track extension to the Israeli rail line. From there, the rail routes would then head for Saudi and the Gulf Emirates. Israeli and Jordanian officials talked about the idea three years ago and recently renewed their discussions

A document issued by the government called the "Tracks for Regional Peace", describes Israel as a "land bridge" and Jordan as a "hub".

From Jordan, the rail routes would then head for Saudi and the Gulf Emirates. Israeli and Jordanian officials talked about the idea three years ago and recently renewed their discussions

It says that "the initiative will contribute to Israel's economy and strengthen Jordan's stressed economy" and "will connect Israel to the region and consolidate the pragmatic camp vis-à-vis Iran and the Shiite axis".

The regional partnership is necessary, the document says, because "fighting in Syria and Iraq has degraded and blocked land transportation routes”. It also emphasises Israel's potential as a "land bridge", providing access to the Mediterranean.

This is especially necessary as Tehran’s expansionist policy poses a "threat to sea routes" in the Straits of Hormuz, the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb, which Iran's Houthi proxies in Yemen aspire to control.

Too much talk?

Yet business ties between the two sides are flourishing even before the Israeli-Sunni corridor becomes a reality.

Ties between the two sides are flourishing even before the Israeli-Sunni corridor becomes a reality

Israel sells agricultural products, as well as intelligence, cyber and homeland security technology to Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE (the largest market and recipient is Abu Dhabi).

Most of the deals are via a third party such as Jordan, Iraq, Kurdistan or Cyprus but some are conducted directly.

Occasionally products from Saudi's petrochemical industry, such as raw materials, are shipped via Jordan to Israel.

Recently it was suggested that flights by El Al, the Israeli national airline, would be allowed to cross Saudi airspace on their way to India.

But such a notion is premature. Saud Arabia, as a guardian of the sacred sites of Islam, would have difficulty selling the idea to the public, especially so long as there is no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Ties between the Islamic kingdom and the Jewish state can be regarded like a quote by the essayist Charles Dudley Warner about the weather. “It is a matter about which a great deal is said, but very little done.”

- Yossi Melman is an Israeli security and intelligence commentator and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Starlings at the Israeli-Jordan border fence in the Jordan Valley on 22 January 2017. Israel wants to link its rail service across the border. (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

“Odessa,” she said, referred not just to her lineage but also to a transformative trip she took there in 2008 with her father. In a sense, it was a place that had always separated them — it embodied a language, a regime and a past that she could never share. Her father fled Ukraine in 1980 when he was 28, and he vowed never to return. Even in America, old habits, like his KGB-induced skepticism of the police lingered. Malis said that during her childhood in Trumbull, Conn., near New Haven, he would close the living-room blinds whenever he wanted to discuss anything “sensitive,” like summer travel plans or family finances. The city loomed large in her father’s consciousness when Malis was growing up. She once asked why there was no fleck of green anywhere in their house — not in the wallpaper, pictures, dishes, throw rugs — and her mother explained that it was because the color reminded him of painful early years spent in the army.

On that trip back, Malis paid for her father’s plane ticket and arranged their accommodations, and they were both surprised to find him just as lost as she was in the streets of Odessa. Her laconic father was more talkative, though, in his native tongue. He was strangely calm visiting his father’s grave but became choked up when he showed her the tracks where he caught the train that whisked him out of the city one panicked night so long ago. Above all, Malis said, typing “Odessa” every time she logged in to her computer was a reminder of the true epiphany she carried home: that getting closer to something — her father, this city — didn’t make it smaller or more manageable. “It actually just brought their complexity and nuance more into focus,” she said.

At least as interesting as the amount of thought Malis had packed into this one six-letter word was the fact that she was telling me it all. I confessed to her that I loved “Odessa” as a password. At the same time, I worried that her office’s techies might not share my affection, given that their first rule is to avoid choosing passwords with personal significance. Malis pointed out that we break that rule precisely because secure passwords are so much harder to remember. Our brains are prone to mooring new memories to old ones, she said. I added that I thought the behavior spoke to something deeper, something almost Cartesian. Humans like, even need, to imbue things with meaning, I suggested. We’re prone to organizing symbols into language.

Malis gave me an inquisitive look. So I continued: We try to make the best of our circumstances, converting our shackles into art, I said. Amid all that is ephemeral, we strive for permanence, in this case ignoring instructions to make passwords disposable, opting instead to preserve our special ones. These very tendencies are what distinguish us as a species.

These special passwords are a bit like origami, I suggested: small and often impromptu acts of creativity, sometimes found in the most banal of places. Malis seemed to agree. She nodded, shook my hand and left.

Asking strangers about their passwords is a touchy proposition. Push too hard, and you come off as a prospective hacker. Go too easy, and people just rant about how much they hate passwords. Still, it’s not every day that you stumble across a conversation topic that teaches you new things about people you’ve known for years.

I discovered, for example, that my father — a recently retired federal judge and generally a pretty serious guy — derived his passwords from a closeted love for goofy, novelty songs from the late ’50s and early ’60s (“The Purple People Eater,” “Monster Mash”).

The “4622” that my wife uses in her passwords was not just the address of her own father’s childhood home but also a reminder of his fragility and strength. Apparently when the former 270-pound football standout, a scholarship athlete and the pride of his working-class neighborhood in west Tulsa, was a small boy, he had to sing his home address (“4622 South 28th West Avenue”) in one full breath rather than try to say it normally; otherwise, his debilitating stutter would trip him up.

My young son revealed that his password was “philosophy,” because, he said, several years earlier, when he created it, he took secret pride in knowing the meaning of a concept that big. The disclosure had an interesting echo for me, because one of my first childhood passwords was a play on “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” an evolutionary theory from a high-school biology class that I found especially captivating. (The hypothesis, now unfashionable, posits that the physical or intellectual development of each individual passes through stages similar to the developmental stages of that individual’s species or civilization.)

I asked Andy Miah, a professor of science communication and digital media at the University of Salford in England, for his thoughts on passwords, and he offered an anthropological outlook. Keepsake passwords, he suggested, ritualize a daily encounter with personal memories that often have no place else to be recalled. We engage with them more frequently and more actively than we do, say, with the framed photo on our desk. “You lose that ritual,” Miah said, “you lose an intimacy with yourself.”

For some people, these rituals are motivational. Fiona Moriarty, a competitive runner, told me that she often used “16:59” — her target time for the 5,000 meters in track. Mauricio Estrella, a designer who emailed me from Shanghai, described how his passwords function like homemade versions of popular apps like Narrato or 1 Second Everyday, which automatically provide its user with a daily reminder to pause and reflect momentarily on personal ambitions or values. To help quell his anger at his ex-wife soon after their divorce, Estrella had reset his password to “Forgive@h3r.” “It worked,” he said. Because his office computer demanded that he change his password every 30 days, he moved on to other goals: “Quit@smoking4ever” (successful); “Save4trip@thailand” (successful); “Eat2@day” (“it never worked, I’m still fat,” Estrella wrote); “Facetime2mom@sunday” (“it worked,” he said, “I’ve started talking with my mom every week now”).

Keepsakes also memorialize loss or mark painful turning points. Leslye Davis, the New York Times reporter who produced the video series that accompanies this article online, said that “stroke911” was her original Facebook password because she happened to create her page on the same day that her cousin had a stroke. My friend Monica Vendituoli’s keepsake was “swim2659nomore” — a reference to a career-ending shoulder injury in 2008 that prevented her from hitting the 26.59-second qualifying time in the 50-yard freestyle she needed for a championship meet in high school. But the effect of typing this password had shifted over the years, she added. What started as a mourning ritual, she said, was now more a reminder of how “time heals all.”

These personal tributes vary widely, I found. Stuck on a tarmac last year, I sat next to a chatty man who, judging by his expensive watch and suit, seemed to have done well for himself. We made small talk about our jobs, and eventually I told him about my interest in passwords. After a long, silent look out the window, he turned to me and said that he typically uses “1060” in his passwords. This was his SAT score, he explained. He liked reminding himself of it, he said, because he took a certain private satisfaction in how far he had come in life in spite of his mediocre showing on the standardized test.

I got an email from a college student, Megan Welch, 21, who described having been trapped several years earlier in a relationship with a physically abusive boyfriend. She recounted how he routinely spied on her email. When she tried to change her password, he always either guessed or got her to tell him the new one. “I was so predictable,” she said. After finally deciding to break up with him, she used for her new password the date of her decision, plus the word “freedom” — a deviation, she said, from the cutesy words that had been her norm. In being uncharacteristic, her password became unhackable; it was at once a break from her former self and a commemoration of that break.

Keepsake passwords are so universal that they are now part of the fabric of pop culture. I noticed, for instance, that on Showtime’s “Dexter,” the main character (a blood-spatter analyst for the police by day, vigilante serial killer by night) forgot his work computer’s password. He was soon visited by the ghost of his adoptive father, Harry, who killed himself after witnessing Dexter’s violent tendencies. The visit reminded Dexter of his password (“Harry”) and the viewer of the longevity and depth of his personal torment.

Googling for more examples, I came across Jack Donaghy, Alec Baldwin’s character on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” He convinced himself that a high-school crush still had feelings for him after he learned that her voice-mail code, “55287,” stood for “Klaus,” the name Jack used in the high-school German class they took together. I found George Costanza from “Seinfeld” nearly driving his girlfriend mad, and maybe even killing a guy, by refusing to share his A.T.M. password, “Bosco,” a reference to George’s weakness for the chocolate syrup.

But perhaps the most bizarre one I found was Jerry Seinfeld’s A.T.M. code — “Jor-El.” On the simplest level — as the episode explained — this was the name of Superman’s Kryptonian father. It served as a nod to the fictional Jerry’s love of the comic-book character. But in digging a bit further, I found that the real-life Jerry’s father was of Eastern European-Jewish descent, and his first name was Kalman, a.k.a. Kal. This is why one of the actor’s two sons, born long after the episode was made, has Kal as his middle name. Though most people know Superman as Clark Kent, his Kryptonian name is Kal-El. What Jerry hid in his PIN looped between fact and fiction, past and present; and comic book, sitcom and real life.

I loved the Seinfeld password story because it was so convoluted that in retelling it I could barely follow it myself. Its circularity inspired a certain awe in me — the way you might feel when you first see an optical illusion by Escher. That got me thinking about the intricate and self-referential patterns famously described in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s 1979 classic “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.” The book is a beautiful and personal musing on how we mold both language and our sense of self from the inanimate material around us.

I wondered if there might be some (modest) parallel between what I saw in keepsakes and the elaborate loops in music, math and art that he described in his book. Like a fractal running through human psychology, maybe we have a tendency not just to create keepsakes but to create ones with self-referential loops in them.

So I called Hofstadter to get his take. He was reserved but intrigued. I suggested that many of these passwords seem to be quiet celebrations of things we hold dear. Hofstadter concurred. His primary password, he said, was the same one he has used since 1975, when he was a visiting scholar at Stanford. It consisted of a sentimental date from his past coupled with a word problem.

“Might there be something deeper at work in these password habits and in the self-referential loops you studied?” I asked.

Some of these patterns we discover, Hofstadter said, others we create. But above all, “we oppose randomness,” he said. “Keepsake passwords are part of that.”

The Internet is a confessional place. With so little privacy, passwords may soon be tomorrow’s eight-track player, quaintly described to our grandchildren. Ten years ago, Bill Gates announced during a tech-security conference in San Francisco that “people are going to rely less and less” on passwords, because they cannot “meet the challenge” of keeping critical information secure. In recent years, there has been a push for machines to identify us not by passwords but by things we possess, like tokens and key cards, or by scanning our eyes, voices or fingerprints. This year, for example, Google purchased SlickLogin, a start-up that verifies IDs using sound waves. iPhones have come equipped with fingerprint scanners for more than a year now. And yet passwords continue to proliferate, to metastasize. Every day more objects — thermostats, car consoles, home alarm systems — are designed to be wired into the Internet and thus password protected. Because big data is big money, even free websites now make you register to view virtually anything of importance so that companies can track potential customers. Five years ago, people averaged about 21 passwords. Now that number is 81, according to LastPass, a company that makes password-storage software.

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