Netanyahu hails ‘best-ever’ ties to Arab world

Prime minister says there have been breakthroughs in relations to Sunni states, but can’t reveal details yet

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem,  September 3, 2017. (AFP/POOL/ABIR SULTAN)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, September 3, 2017. (AFP/POOL/ABIR SULTAN)

Israel’s relations with the Arab world have never been better than they are today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday.

Hailing a “breakthrough” in Israel’s outreach to moderate Sunni states in the region, he acknowledged that these ties have not advanced to the point where those states have acknowledged them in public.

“What is actually happening with [the Arab states] has never happened in our history, even when we signed agreements,” Netanyahu told Israeli diplomats at a Jewish New Year’s toast at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. Cooperation between Israel and Arab states exists “in various ways and different levels,” though it still isn’t visible above the surface, he said, adding that away from the public eye, “there is much more than during any other period in the history of Israel. This is a tremendous change. The entire world is changing.”

Israel and the Arab world have been engaging for decades in various, mostly clandestine ways. In the 1990s, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, trade and political ties grew stronger, so much so that the Israeli chamber of commerce published a guide in Hebrew on how to do business in the Gulf. In 1994, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman, where he was greeted by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.

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 Israeli Foreign Ministry declared at the time, adding that the office’s main role would 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, after Rabin’s assassination, then-acting prime minister Shimon Peres visited Oman and Qatar to officially open “Israel Trade Representation Offices” in both capitals.

But the overt ties with Oman didn’t last even for half a decade. In October 2000, when the Second Intifada began, Omani rulers felt the public opinion had turned against Israel, and suspended relations and closed the mission.

Qatar shuttered the Israeli mission in 2009 because of Operation Cast Lead, a military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

During his speech Wednesday, Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister, hailed his government’s diplomatic achievements, citing improved relations with North America, Europe, Africa, Russia, Latin America and other regions.

While Israel has not yet succeeded in overcoming the automatic Arab majority at international forums such as the United Nations, Netanyahu said bilateral ties with many individual countries are improving significantly because Israel is offering technological know-how and security cooperation. This disproves the theory that Israel can only advance its international relations during peace negotiations with the Palestinians, he argued.

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