Omani FM to Times of Israel: US peace plan will fail without a Palestinian state
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Omani FM to Times of Israel: US peace plan will fail without a Palestinian state

In his first-ever interview with an Israeli publication, Yusuf bin Alawi says the Arab states must make Israel ‘not feel that it has enemies in the region’

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

Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah attends the 2019 World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, at the King Hussein Convention Centre at the Dead Sea in Jordan on April 6, 2019. (Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP)
Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah attends the 2019 World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, at the King Hussein Convention Centre at the Dead Sea in Jordan on April 6, 2019. (Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP)

DEAD SEA, Jordan — The US administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan will fail if it does not provide for a Palestinian state, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi said on Saturday.

In an interview, bin Alawi also said the next several years would be “decisive” for peace efforts and called for Arab states to work to reassure Israel that it can withdraw from the West Bank and Golan Heights without feeling threatened.

Bin Alawi said his talk with The Times of Israel, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Jordan, was his first sit-down interview with an Israeli publication. Gulf ministers rarely speak to Israeli outlets.

The conversation came days before Israelis head to the polls, with a US peace plan for the region slated to be released sometime soon after.

While US President Donald Trump has said he thinks the two-state solution, including the creation of a Palestinian state, “works best,” he has not committed to it.

“If [the plan] avoids mentioning a Palestinian state, it will not have a future,” bin Alawi, who has served as Oman’s foreign minister since 1997, warned.

Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman late last year, the top Omani diplomat has spoken frequently about the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Netanyahu met Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Muscat in October 2018, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to do so in more than two decades; he also met bin Alawi in February on the margins of an American-Polish conference in Warsaw on the Middle East.

Bin Alawi, clad in traditional Omani garb, also said Arab states should figure out how they can quell Israeli fears about its security situation.

“Israel still believes that it is in a region with enemies. It considers its security requirements to be a top priority. Therefore, as Arabs, we must discuss this issue and see how we can eliminate this feeling and reach a mutual understanding with Israel,” he said. “If it is reassured about its security, Israel will have no need or requirement to keep its army in the Arab lands and it will not feel that it has enemies in the region.”

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

The top Omani diplomat made a similar comment on a panel at the World Economic Forum on Saturday. “[Israel] is not reassured of the continuation of its existence in the region. I believe that we, the Arabs, are able to discuss this issue and strive to get rid of these fears,” he said at the event.

However, at that session, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi pushed back, contending “that the issue is that there is an occupation.”  He noted that in 2002, as part of the Arab Peace Initiative, scores of Arab and Muslim countries offered Israel recognition in exchange for a withdrawal from lands it captured some five decades ago.

Bin Alawi added that while Israel and Oman have not normalized their ties, the two countries communicate with each other.

“Normalization depends on a number of principles. If these principles, which include the establishment of a Palestinian state, are achieved, the next stage will begin, which includes economic interests and benefits. As for right now, our relations are those of communications,” he told The Times of Israel, noting that nothing was preventing Israeli officials from visiting Oman or vice versa.

Israel has formal relations only with Egypt and Jordan, but its relations with some Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, appear to have recently warmed as part of a tacit alliance against Iran.

He also said that Israel would not succeed in compelling the Arab world to accept the Jewish state’s rule over the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Shebaa Farms, territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War.

“Facts will stay facts. Israel will not be able to force the Arabs to adopt a policy that does not lead to an agreement, restoring Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territories to their nations,” he said.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, which was conducted in Arabic.

The Times of Israel: How do you see Israeli-Omani relations? Where do they stand?

Yusuf bin Alawi: Oman’s relations with Israel are at a stage in which there are areas of agreement and, of course, disputes. Our relationship with Israel goes through the leaders of Israel. As you know, the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited the Sultanate and former prime minister Shimon Peres visited the Sultanate, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Sultanate.

We believe Israel has an important role to undertake in bringing about stability in the region. In that framework, we are communicating with Israel and the Israeli government. We are looking forward to the situation in the region becoming more stable. We are also looking forward to seeing Israel undertake efforts similar to the Arab efforts to solve the Palestinian issue between the Palestinians and Israelis.

As we have said and we continue to say to the press, it is in Israel’s interest to cooperate with Arab states in establishing an independent Palestinian state, which will create an enormous degree of security for this region that includes Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. We are looking forward to that and we encourage the Israeli people and leaders not to think that they are in a region with enemies.

Is it possible for Israel’s relations with Oman to be normalized before a resolution to the Palestinian issue?

Normalization depends on a number of principles. If these principles, which include the establishment of a Palestinian state, are achieved, the next stage will begin, which includes economic interests and benefits.

As for right now, our relations are those of communications. We define it this way. The communications are for discussing not only this region, but also other places in the world and how in other places in the world we can have peace and coexistence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) greets Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah at the sidelines of a regional conference on the Middle East in Warsaw, February 13, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Are there official visits that are going take place?

There are visits whenever they are needed. There is nothing preventing them from taking place.

Will Sultan Qaboos bin Said visit Israel?

That can happen when our relations reach a higher level, but the communications at the current level are beneficial and we believe they should not be cut off.

You mentioned on the panel earlier [at the World Economic Forum] that Arab states should reassure Israel that they do not oppose it? Can you elaborate on what you were saying?

Israel still believes that it is in region with enemies. It considers its security requirements to be a top priority. Therefore, as Arabs, we must discuss this issue and see how we can eliminate this feeling and reach a mutual understanding with Israel.

In addition, the restrictions that Israel imposes on the establishment of a Palestinian state and the West Bank lands, which are Palestinian lands, and the Arab lands, like the Golan and other places, should be dealt with and solved in the framework of a joint understanding between Israel and the Arabs. On this matter, we believe there are broad horizons. If it is reassured about its security, Israel will have no need or requirement to keep its army in the Arab lands and it will not feel that it has enemies in the region.

The idea is that Arab states should reassure Israel it is a part of the region and that will help advance peace?

Yes. It will help a lot. They currently do not trust their Arab neighbors. They cling to the idea that they are surrounded by threats. This situation does not allow for an opportunity to achieve a rapprochement between the Arabs and Israel. We believe the two sides need to undertake efforts until Israel’s security can be said to be a part of the security of the region and a part of this region.

Do you have any message for Israelis ahead of the elections?

We hope they will be for the benefit of everyone regardless of whether Prime Minister Netanyahu or a new Israeli leader wins. Fifty years have passed since the war in 1967 and Israel and Arabs still do not trust each other. Israel has unfortunately not contributed to giving us, the Arabs, the belief that it is ready to turn the page, to one that everyone will share.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Benny Gantz, right. (Hadas Parush/Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Can Netanyahu make peace? Yesterday, he said he would not uproot any settlement or any Israelis from settlements?

He says what he wants to say. But facts will stay facts. Israel will not be able to force the Arabs to adopt a policy that does not lead to an agreement, restoring Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territories to their nations; if this does not happen, Israel will remain in a state of fear, especially at this time, in which missiles are more damaging than they once were. We call on Israeli people and leaders to be aware of this reality. Seventy years have passed and Israel has not existed as a state like the rest of states in the world.

Also 70 years have gone by and the Palestinians have faced conflict and pressures. They are like prisoners. If a Palestinian wants to travel outside the West Bank, they need a permit. And if one is living in his home and needs permission [to leave], that’s a prison. That’s not a normal life.

US President Donald Trump’s administration says it will put a peace plan forward at some point after the Israeli elections on Tuesday. In order for Oman to work with the plan, what needs to be in it?

We first need to see the plan. But before we see the plan, we can say that it should not have things in it that bother the Palestinians and make them not work with it. If it avoids mentioning a Palestinian state, it will not have a future.

Did Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat focus on Iran?

We do not say what was said and what was not said. His visit was unique and short and it was made at his request. A number of problems in the region were discussed. What we heard from Netanyahu included some positive parts. I believe the period of the next Israeli prime ministership will be decisive for peace efforts. It will be decisive.

Israel needs to go back to studying the facts. The West Bank and Gaza is the Palestinian state. As for the settlers, they are Israelis who came from Israel.

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