PLO: In Oman, Netanyahu told leader he’s ready to cede land not security control

Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Palestinian official, plays down significance of Israel’s PM’s October trip to Muscat, contending the two countries have long maintained ties

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman in the Gulf state on October 26, 2018. (Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman in the Gulf state on October 26, 2018. (Courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Omani leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said that he is ready to cede territory, but not security control, to the Palestinians, a senior official in Ramallah briefed on the the prime minister’s comments said.

Netanyahu traveled to Muscat in late October and met Qaboos there, becoming the first Israeli prime minister in more than two decades to publicly visit the Gulf country.

Few details from Netanyahu and Qaboos’s meeting have been reported, giving rise to considerable speculation about the matters the two leaders discussed.

“The Omani foreign minister informed us of what Netanyahu told Sultan Qaboos,” Azzam al-Ahmad, a top Fatah and Palestine Liberation Organization official, told The Times of Israel Tuesday. “He told us Netanyahu said to Qaboos he is ready to make some territorial concessions, but said he will not give up security control.”

Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Palestinian official, in his office in northern Ramallah on December 4, 2018. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi made a rare visit to Ramallah in late October and met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Bin Alawi delivered a letter to Abbas from Qaboos regarding Netanyahu’s visit to the Omani capital, Wafa, the official PA news site, reported at the time, without revealing its contents.

According to Ahmad, Abbas told bin Alawi that Netanyahu was not serious about reaching a deal with the Palestinians.

“Abbas told the Omani foreign minister that what Netanyahu said is old talk that he often repeats,” Ahmad said. “ He told him that what he said is a form of deception and that Netanyahu is not serious about peace.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi shaking hands in Ramallah on October 31, 2018. (Credit: Wafa)

When asked about Ahmad’s remarks, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.

A joint statement issued in October by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Omani government said Netanyahu and Qaboos 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,” without elaborating.

In recent years, Netanyahu has said on more than one occasion that in any future peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, the Jewish state will not relinquish security control west of the Jordan River.

Both Israeli and PA security forces currently oversee security in the West Bank, including maintaining cooperation in some areas.

The prime minister has also wavered on the topic of ceding territory to the Palestinians, but in recent years has taken a hard line against evacuating settlements.

“I promise you that communities in the Land of Israel won’t be evacuated,” he said in August.

Ahmad, who was recently elected to the PLO Executive Committee, played down the significance of Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, contending the country has long maintained ties with Israel.

“Oman and Israel’s relations are not new. Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister to visit Oman and Peres was the second…Even though they visited than 20 years ago, we know that Oman and Israel’s ties were never cut off,” he said. “The Omanis have a way of running their affairs. They believe in dialogue for resolving any problem and sometimes they exaggerate.”

After Israel and the PLO recognized each other in the early 1990s, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman, where he was greeted by the sultan.

In January 1996, Israel and Oman signed an agreement on the reciprocal opening of trade representative offices. Four months after they signed the document, then-acting prime minister Shimon Peres visited Muscat to officially open the Israeli trade office.

Israel and Oman’s overt ties didn’t last for even half a decade. In October 2000, in the wake of the Second Intifada, the respective trade offices were closed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

However, despite shutting down the Israeli trade office, located on Muscat’s Al-Adhiba Street, the Omani government quietly encouraged Israeli diplomats to stick around, as long as the ongoing engagement between the two countries stayed secret, according to an Israeli diplomat, who asked to remain unnamed.

Asked whether a recent comment Bin Alawi made in Bahrain, in which he stated “maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same” as other states in the Middle East, concerned the Palestinians, Ahmad responded in the negative.

“No. We have a conviction that even if the [Arab] regimes want to normalize ties, they will hesitate and ultimately not be able to because their peoples reject that.”

The Palestinian official emphasized that Israel has not even succeeded in fully normalizing its ties with Egypt and Jordan, who are parties to peace treaties with the Jewish state.

“Israel has not managed to normalize its ties with much of the Egyptian and Jordanian governments,” he said. “So we don’t think normalization is possible without the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

The Palestinians have long supported the Arab Peace, which calls on Israel to agree a two-state solution along the 1967 lines and a “just” solution to the Palestinian refugee issue in exchange for Arab nations subsequently normalizing relations with it and declaring the Arab-Israeli conflict over.

While Israel maintains peace treaties with both Jordan and Egypt, bilateral ties between many Israeli and Jordanian government bodies and Israeli and Egyptian government institutions are minimal and, in a number of cases, nonexistent.

But security ties between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, respectively, are believed to be strong.

In comparison to his comments about Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, Ahmad spoke more critically when referring to the recent visits of two Israeli ministers to the United Arab Emirates.

“After Netanyahu visited Oman, two ministers went to the Emirates,” he said. “We consider allowing these visits to happen to be a departure from the Arab Peace Initiative.”

In late October, Culture Minister Miri Regev visited Abu Dhabi to attend a judo tournament. Not only did the UAE permit the sounding of the Israeli national anthem twice at the competition in honor of two Israeli gold medalists, but Emirati officials also brought Regev on a tour of Abu Dhabi’s grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

Two days after Regev left the UAE, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara landed in Dubai, where he participated in an international telecommunications conference. Kara, who is Druze, delivered a speech in Arabic to the gathering and spent four days in the Gulf country.

Miri Regev, center, visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi with UAE officials on October 29, 2018. (Courtesy Chen Kedem Maktoubi)

Ahmad also said the Palestinians intend to continue to apply for membership in United Nations agencies, which they previously pledged they would not join.

“After all the punitive measures Trump has made against the Palestinian people, we are no longer obligated to uphold our pledge to the American administration to not join these organizations,” he said. “We plan to continue to join them gradually.”

Abbas has said recently that a Palestinian agreement with the US not to join UN agencies was conditioned on the American embassy not moving to Jerusalem, not changing the status of the PLO mission in Washington, DC, and not cutting aid payments. In the past year, Trump’s administration has done all three.

US laws dating to the early 1990s require the American government to cut off funding to any UN organization that grants the Palestinians full membership.

Ahmad said a committee formed by the Palestinian Central Council, a PLO body, will decide when the Palestinians will join the UN agencies, in which they still do not have membership.

The Palestinians are currently members of four UN agencies; they still have not joined 18 others.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this article.

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