WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s secret visit to Oman for an “official diplomatic mission” that marked a significant warming of ties between the Jewish state and the Gulf states.
Earlier Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office surprisingly announced that Netanyahu and his wife Sara had just returned from Muscat after meeting with Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
The White House lauded the development hours later. “We welcome the warming ties & growing cooperation between our regional friends,” special envoy for Middle East peace Jason Greenblatt tweeted.
“This is a helpful step for our peace efforts & essential to create an atmosphere of stability, security & prosperity between Israelis, Palestinians & their neighbors.”
He added, “Looking forward to seeing more meetings like this!”
Netanyahu’s visit to Oman marked the first by an Israeli leader in over two decades. The last was in 1996, when Shimon Peres visited.
The Netanyahus were invited to Oman by the sultan, who has been ruling the Gulf state since 1970, “after lengthy contacts between the two countries,” the PMO’s statement said.
“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 statement added.
— Jason D. Greenblatt (@jdgreenblatt45) October 26, 2018
Netanyahu and his wife were accompanied by Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Foreign Ministry Director-General Yuval Rotem, the head of the Prime Minister’s staff, Yigal Horowitz, and the Prime Minister’s Military Secretary, Brig.-Gen. Avi Bluth.
A joint statement 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.”
Netanyahu’s visit came just days after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also met with the sultan in Muscat.
Netanyahu 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.
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. Four months later, Peres visited Oman to officially open “Israel Trade Representation Offices” there.
Headed by a small team of three Israeli diplomats, the office in Muscat functioned “basically like a regular embassy — just without the Israeli flag,” according to an Israel official stationed in the mission.
The overt ties with Oman didn’t last for even half a decade. In October 2000, after the Second Intifada broke out, Omani rulers felt the public opinion turned against Israel, suspended relations and closed the mission.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed regret at the decision, emphasizing that the cessation of contact and dialogue does nothing to advance the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Greenblatt’s embrace of Netanyahu’s visit and the warming of ties with Oman comes as the White House prepares to publish its long-awaited peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians.
At the UN General Assembly last month, US President Donald Trump said he expected its release to come before January.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report