Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a surprise visit to Oman on Friday, boosting his claim to be leading Israel into a new era in ties with Arab nations and prompting speculation about what lay behind the rare public interaction between Israel and a Gulf state with which it no longer has diplomatic relations.
There were few concrete details on his talks with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said beyond a joint statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on Friday afternoon, saying the two sides “discussed ways to advance the Middle East peace process and discussed a number of issues of mutual interest to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East.”
The sultanate has long had a low-key role in fostering negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Days before Netanyahu’s visit, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Oman, raising the possibility that Oman might be trying to help revive negotiations or push forward a troubled US peace plan.
But one leading Israeli analyst was skeptical that this was the true reason behind the visit, the first by an Israeli leader in over two decades.
“Oman wants to be a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. However, Israel doesn’t need anyone’s help to be able to talk to the Palestinians,” said Hadashot TV news Arab affairs analyst Ehud Ya’ari, pointing to another role for Muscat. “Oman is a pipeline to Tehran.”
Oman, which sits on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to its north and Iran to its east, also has a long record of being a quiet broker in the region, opting to stay on the sidelines of the rivalry between the two regional powerhouses.
While Oman’s influence over Israel and the Palestinians is limited, its unique regional position could enable it to play a bigger role mediating between Israel and archenemy Iran.
Sultan Qaboos has managed to steer his country through choppy regional politics with a policy of non-interference, helping broker the release of Western hostages in Yemen and providing a back door for communications between Washington and Tehran under the Obama administration. Although it is a member of the Saudi-led six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, it did not join the kingdom in its boycott of Qatar or the war in Yemen.
“Countries go to Oman if they have a message to give to Iran,” said Ya’ari, also referencing the back-channel work the Omanis did between the Obama administration and Tehran.
Israel has repeatedly expressed concern about Iran’s military activities and support for Shiite terror groups in neighboring Syria and warned 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.
In addition, US sanctions on Iran are to soon go into effect after the Trump administration, with strong Israeli support, backed out of the international nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration.
The idea of Oman potentially serving as a channel of some kind to Iran appeared to be reinforced by the Palestinians.
A senior Palestinian official said late Friday that the sultan had offered to play a role mediating between the Palestinians and Israelis, and that Abbas had said he welcomes any “meaningful” peace process. But the official said the visit was mostly connected to Oman’s “regional role.”
Netanyahu’s office said he had been invited by the sultan after lengthy communications. Oman state TV carried images of the two leaders meeting and Netanyahu shared a video of his visit on his official social media accounts, calling it “a special visit to Oman — making history!”
Israel and Oman do not have diplomatic relations. Israel is only officially recognized by two Arab states — Egypt and Jordan.
The meeting was the first between leaders of the two countries since then-prime minister Shimon Peres visited in 1996.
Israel and the Palestinians have not held substantive peace talks for the past decade. While US President Donald Trump has promised a Mideast peace plan, US relations with the Palestinians have deteriorated and his efforts to produce the “Deal of the Century” have so far proven fruitless.
The Palestinians cut ties with the US after the White House recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then moved the American embassy there in May. The US has also cut funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and shuttered the Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington. These moves have further alienated the Palestinians.
The US has not released details of its peace plan, but it is widely expected to include a role for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Arab states, including Oman, remain publicly committed to calls for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Oman has joined a chorus of Arab countries that have strongly condemned Israel’s killing of Palestinians in Gaza protests that erupted in May and continued Friday.
Netanyahu and his wife were joined on the trip by the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, his national security adviser, his Foreign Ministry director-general, and other defense officials.
Netanyahu has repeatedly stated in recent years that Israel has developed good relations with several Arab states, despite a lack of official ties. But he rarely publicizes these contacts or identifies his partners.
In the lead-up to Friday’s surprise visit to Oman, there have been signs that Israel’s behind the scenes dialogue with Arab states is becoming more public.
In February, Oman’s foreign minister made a rare visit by an Arab official to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and to the West Bank.
The following month, Omani officials joined their Arab counterparts from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain at the White House for a meeting with Israeli national security officials to discuss the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.
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