Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret visit to the Gulf nation of Oman on Friday — the first by an Israeli leader in over two decades, and a sign of warming ties between the Jewish state and the Sunni Arab world.
On Friday afternoon, his office surprisingly announced that Netanyahu and his wife Sara had just returned from an “official diplomatic visit” to Muscat, during which they met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
“The Prime Minister’s visit is a significant step in implementing the policy outlined by Prime Minister Netanyahu on deepening relations with the states of the region while leveraging Israel’s advantages in security, technology and economic matters,” his office said in a statement.
The last visit by an Israeli leader to Oman took place in 1996, when Shimon Peres visited.
The Netanyahus were invited to Oman by the sultan, who has been ruling the Gulf state since 1970, “after lengthy contacts between the two countries,” the statement said.
A joint statement issued by Jerusalem and Muscat said the two leaders discussed “ways to advance the peace process in the Middle East as well as several matters of joint interest regarding the achievement of peace and stability in the Middle East.”
Netanyahu and his wife were accompanied to Muscat by Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Foreign Ministry Director-General Yuval Rotem, the head of the Prime Minister’s staff, Yigal Horowitz, and the Prime Minister’s Military Secretary, Brig.-Gen. Avi Bluth.
Netanyahu’s visit comes just days after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also met with the Sultan in Muscat.
The two leaders discussed “the latest developments related to the Palestinian issue” and their countries’ bilateral ties, the official PA news site Wafa reports.
Netanyahu has for years spoken about the warming ties between Israel and the Arab world, citing not only Iran as a common enemy but also many countries’ interest in cooperating with Israel on security and defense matters, as well as Israel’s growing high-tech industry.
“You should not underestimate the openness and the thirst in the Arab world today for Israel,” he said Thursday. “And the reason, the first reason before anything else, is that we’re there in innovation.”
Oman, a country of about four and a half million people on the southeastern coast of the Arabian peninsula, has long been one of the few Arab states not to shy away from open ties with Israel.
In 1994, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman, where he was greeted by the sultan. In 1995, a few days after Rabin was assassinated, then-acting prime minister Shimon Peres hosted Omani foreign minister Yusuf Ibn Alawi in Jerusalem.
In January 1996, Israel and Oman signed an agreement on the reciprocal opening of trade representative offices.
“Oman believes that the current step will lead to continued progress in the peace process, and increased stability in the region,” the Israel Foreign Ministry declared at the time, adding that the office’s main role will be “to develop reciprocal economic and trade relations with Oman, as well as cooperation in the spheres of water, agriculture, medicine and communications.”
Four months later, Peres visited Oman to officially open “Israel Trade Representation Offices” there.
Headed by a small team of three Israeli diplomats, the office in Muscat functioned “basically like a regular embassy — just without the Israeli flag,” according to an Israel official stationed in the mission.
The overt ties with Oman didn’t last for even half a decade. In October 2000, in the wake of the Second Intifada, Omani rulers felt the public opinion turned against Israel, suspended relations and closed the mission. The Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed regret at the decision, emphasizing that the cessation of contact and dialogue does nothing to advance the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. “In days of crisis, it is especially important that lines of communication between countries be kept open,” the ministry declared.
However, despite shutting down the Israeli representative office, located on Muscat’s Al-Adhiba Street, the government of Oman quietly encouraged Israeli diplomats to stick around, as long as the ongoing engagement between the two countries stayed secret.