Netanyahu secretly met Omani FM in Germany — report

Israeli TV says February talks helped pave way for PM’s visit to Muscat; discussion said to have focused on Iran, advancing bilateral ties

Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman's minister responsible for foreign affairs, addresses the 14th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on October 27, 2018. (Photo by STR / AFP)
Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman's minister responsible for foreign affairs, addresses the 14th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on October 27, 2018. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met secretly with Oman’s foreign minister in February, helping lay the foundations for the premier’s visit to the Gulf sultanate last month, Israeli television reported Friday,

According to Channel 10 news, Netanyahu’s meeting with Yusuf bin Alawi was held on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, a major gathering of top political and defense leaders from across the world.

The meeting was put together by Mossad head Yossi Cohen who played the lead role in the contacts between Israel and Oman, the report said.

The report, which cited an unnamed senior Israeli official, said the meeting was the first between Israeli and Omani political figures since the Mossad-led outreach to Oman began in April 2017.

Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad, is seen in a committee meeting at the Israeli parliament on December 8, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The official told the network Netanyahu and bin Alawi discussed Iran and advancing ties between the countries.

Like most Arab states, Israel and Oman do not have formal diplomatic relations, though officials from the two countries have previously met.

Netanyahu’s surprise visit to Muscat in October to meet with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said was the first of its kind by an Israeli leader in over two decades and highlighted the growing thaw between Israel and Gulf states.

The Prime Minister’s Office said after the trip Netanyahu and his wife Sara were invited to the Omani capital by Qaboos “after lengthy contacts between the two countries.”

Israel and Oman said in a joint statement 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.”

Though neither country directly mentioned Iran in statements after the meeting, analysts noted Oman could serve as a backdoor channel to Tehran.

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

Though a member of the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council, Oman has stayed out of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and often acted as a regional mediator. It notably hosted secret talks between US and Iranian officials that helped lead to the 2015 nuclear deal curbing Tehran’s nuclear program, an agreement strongly opposed by Netanyahu.

The Channel 10 report said neither Israel nor Oman informed the United States of their warming diplomatic ties. The meeting between Netanyahu and Qaboos was welcomed by the White House, with an envoy for US President Donald Trump saying it was a “helpful step for our peace efforts.”

Following the meeting in Oman, bin Alawi urged other Middle East states to accept Israel and said the country would help promote peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.

Speaking at the same conference, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa expressed backing for Oman’s efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said peace talks would help normalize diplomatic ties between Israel and the Arab world, according to Reuters.

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

Bin Alawi this week travelled to the West Bank city of Ramallah to update Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas on the meeting between Qaboos and Netanyahu.

Palestinian officials have largely remained silent on Netanyahu’s trip to Muscat, though top negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Arab world should remain committed to the Arab Peace Initiative.

The proposal offers a normalization of diplomatic ties and a formal end to the Israeli-Arab conflict in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the so-called 1967 lines and a “just” solution to the refugee issue.

Israel has previously offered support for some of the initiative’s tenets but balked at others pertaining to refugees and returning the Golan Heights to Syrian control.

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