Israeli official hopeful for more normalization deals within year

Foreign Ministry’s Eliav Benjamin says Israel engaging with ‘basically all countries in the region’ to expand Abraham Accords, mentions Oman as one possible target

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: A Gulf Air A320 airplane coming from the Bahraini capital Manama is welcomed as it arrives at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on September 30, 2021. (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)
Illustrative: A Gulf Air A320 airplane coming from the Bahraini capital Manama is welcomed as it arrives at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on September 30, 2021. (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

A senior Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday that Israel is engaging with a wide swath of regional countries in a bid to normalize ties, including Oman, and hopes to forge one or more deals within a year.

Israel has pushed ahead with efforts to forge formal relations with countries in the Mideast and Africa following a flurry of US-brokered deals last year, said Eliav Benjamin, who heads the Middle East and Peace Process Division in the Foreign Ministry.

“We’re speaking basically to all countries in the region, in the Middle East and North Africa,” Benjamin told international media during a briefing. “They each have to decide when will be the right time for them and how to go about it. We’re speaking to all of them, Oman as well…we have ongoing cooperation.”

Oman has long been touted as one of the next countries to potentially forge diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. It hosted then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018, expressed its support for the Israel-United Arab Emirates normalization deal the day after it was announced last year and was also quick to welcome Israel’s ties with Bahrain.

But Muscat has repeatedly said in recent months that it will not normalize ties with Israel before Palestinians are granted a state of their own.

Benjamin noted that Israel used to have an official mission in Muscat that was opened after the Oslo Accords. He also said that Israel still participates in a multilateral project with Oman, Jordan and others in the region on water cooperation.

Oman’s ruler Sultan Haitham bin Tariq prepares for a meeting at al-Alam palace in the capital Muscat on February 21, 2020. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP, File)

The diplomat, however, acknowledged that internal factors within Oman and other countries also play a role in the pace and manner in which the Abraham Accords can be expanded.

The US, Israel and Oman have all had leadership transitions in the last year, somewhat dampening hopes for new normalization deals.

Haitham bin Tariq took over in January as the Sultan of Oman after the death of Qaboos bin Said, who was instrumental in the warming of Muscat’s relations with the Jewish state. Analysts say the new Sultan, who is still working to boost his legitimacy at home, will have a harder time taking such a controversial decision to normalize ties with Israel so shortly after entering office.

Foreign Ministry’s Eliav Benjamin (Courtesy)

Nonetheless, Benjamin was optimistic.

“Also with Oman and also with other countries. I really hope that when we meet this time next year, if not before, we will be able to talk about other countries that have joined.”

The Foreign Ministry later said Oman was not being singled out, characterizing Benjamin’s comments as a response to a question that mentioned Oman.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Tuesday indicated additional countries could join the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain in forging ties with Israel.

“I wouldn’t name names because this will harm the process, but of course, we’re working with the United States and with the new friends in the Emirates, in Bahrain and Morocco… in order to expand this to other countries,” Lapid told the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual conference.

Palestinians step on a placard displaying pictures of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Bahraini King Hamad al-Khalifa, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos in Muscat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, during a protest denouncing the US-led Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain, in Gaza City on June 24, 2019. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“This doesn’t mean we’re neglecting forever and ever the Palestinian issue that we have also to work on,” he added.

Lapid recently traveled to the UAE and Bahrain to inaugurate Israel’s embassies in the country, following the one-year anniversary of the normalization agreements brokered by the Trump administration.

Sudan and Morocco joined the Abraham Accords in the months after they were signed, while Kosovo agreed to recognize Israel as part of a separate US-brokered agreement involving Serbia.

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