Improving ties in the Arab world
Netanyahu’s surprise visit to Oman is hinting at a possibility of improved diplomatic relations in the Arab world
The surprise visit of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman, last Thursday, reflected a sign of improving relations between the Jewish state and the Arab Gulf countries.
Although, no concrete details were made public after his meeting with the ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, a joint statement issued by the two leaders stated that they "discussed ways to advance the Middle East peace process and a number of issues of mutual interest to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East."
The meeting was the first of its kind between the leaders of the two countries since 1996. Yitzhak Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister to visit Oman in 1994. His successor, Shimon Peres, met Sultan Qaboos, 77, in 1996, when the two sides agreed to open trade representative offices in each other's countries. In October 2000, Oman closed the offices after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising. Also, last February, Oman's foreign minister made a rare visit to Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque and to the West Bank.
Netanyahu was accompanied by his wife, Sara, head of the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, Yossi Cohen, National Security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and some other top officials of his government. The visit was made public only after he returned home on Friday afternoon.
Arab governments often prefer to keep their contact with Israel as discreet as possible; but, unusually, the trip was prominently highlighted in Oman's state media. However, countries in the region gave a cold response to the visit while the media also did not give much importance to it.
The Israeli government hailed the visit as "a significant step" in Netanyahu's policy of "deepening relations with the states of the region while leveraging Israel's advantages in security, technology and economic matters".
Israel has no formal diplomatic relations with Oman or its Arab Gulf neighbours. But reports have been emerging from time to time that Israel shares some intelligence information with Arab Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Israel is officially recognised by two Arab states – Egypt and Jordan.
Netanyahu, 69, frequently boasts of warming behind-the-scenes contacts with Gulf Arab states. He has been trying to improve ties with the Gulf countries on the basis of a shared interest to counter Iran.
Hours before leaving for Oman, he had hinted of a renewed regional diplomatic push, telling reporters at a business conference that a number of neighbouring countries were "extending their hands" to normalise relations with Israel.
Most Gulf countries have been vocal against Iran, accusing it of sponsoring terrorism in the region, a charge vehemently denied by Teheran. Israel and Saudi Arabia are both close US allies, with a joint interest in confronting Iran in the region.
The unannounced visit of Netanyahu signified the growing ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours that, observers hope, will become more public in the near future.
The Israeli leader travelled to Oman just a few days after Sultan Qaboos hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, triggering speculation that the Sultanate might be trying to help revive negotiations or push forward a troubled US peace plan.
It is unclear if Abbas, who has refused to deal directly with Netanyahu and broken off communication with the Trump administration over its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital last December, was aware of the Israeli leader's visit. Israel and the Palestinians have not held substantive peace talks for the past decade. The US has also cut funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and closed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation office in Washington. All these measures have further alienated the Palestinians.
Oman, which is on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to its north and Iran to its east, has long been working as a quiet broker in the region. It had also played a significant back-channel role between the US and Iran ahead of their negotiations that led to the 2015 nuclear deal during the Barrack Obama regime. The first secret talks between the US and Iran, before the deal was finalised, were held in Oman in 2013.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia opposed the nuclear deal and clashed with the Obama administration. The deal was annulled by Obama's successor Donald Trump.
Signs of secret contacts between the two countries have been emerging in recent years, including an unprecedented interview a top Israeli officer gave to a Saudi newspaper, where he offered to share intelligence with Riyadh. There are also reports that Netanyahu's aircraft on the way to Oman overflew Saudi Arabia.
Although Oman has limited influence over Israel and Palestinians, it can play a bigger role mediating between the two arch-rivals — Iran and Israel — due to its unique regional position.
Israel has repeatedly voiced concerns about Iran's military activities and support for Shiite militias in neighbouring Syria, warning that it will not allow Iran to maintain a permanent military presence in Syria. In recent months, Israel has carried out a number of strikes on Iranian positions in Syria.
Observers described the visit as "very important politically" to Netanyahu – but it is too early to say whether it would lead to full diplomatic relations of Oman with other Arab countries following the suit.
They said that Netanyahu's visit to Oman may prompt US president Donald Trump to encourage Saudi Arabia's all-powerful crown prince Mohammad bin Salman to engage with Israel.
(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)