Following a surprise visit on Friday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman, the Gulf sultanate’s foreign minister said Saturday that Israel should be accepted in the region, and offered that Oman would work to assist in Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
Speaking at a security summit in Bahrain, Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah maintained that Oman would not serve as a mediator, but would offer ideas for negotiations, while expressing support for peace efforts being led by US President Donald Trump.
“Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. The world is also aware of this fact and maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same and also bear the same obligations,” bin Abdullah said at the conference on Saturday, according to Reuters.
The comment followed a rare visit Friday by Netanyahu to Oman, 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. Netanyahu and his wife Sara traveled to Muscat to meet Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who had extended an invitation to the couple “after lengthy contacts between the two countries,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
A joint statement later 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.”
On Saturday, the Omani foreign minister said that in supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, “we are not saying that the road is now easy and paved with flowers, but our priority is to put an end to the conflict and move to a new world.”
Israel does not have formal diplomatic relations with Oman, like with most Arab states. Previously, a number of top Israeli officials had met with the Omani sultan.
Also at the summit, 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. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and his Italian and German counterparts also attended the conference.
An unnamed Israeli official said to be familiar with details of Netanyahu’s visit told The New York Times that since Oman is perceived as a fair mediator to all Middle East countries, the trip could lead to further diplomatic openings for Israel.
The official also said Israel could use Oman as a backchannel to both Iran and Syria. Oman was deeply involved in backchannel US-Iran talks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers, including Washington. Trump withdrew the US from the accord earlier this year.
Netanyahu’s office said on Friday: “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.”
The Israeli premier 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.
The Israeli office in Muscat closed in 2000 in the wake of the Second Intifada, as public opinion was turning against Israel, but the government quietly encouraged Israeli diplomats to stick around as long as the ongoing engagement between the two countries stayed secret.