November 5, 2018 | The Weekly Standard

Is Bibi’s Oman Visit an Omen?

The possibility that the country of five million could be a peace broker.
November 5, 2018 | The Weekly Standard

Is Bibi’s Oman Visit an Omen?

The possibility that the country of five million could be a peace broker.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unexpected visit late last month to Oman, where he met with Sultan Qaboos. In a joint statement, Qaboos and Netanyahu announced that they “discussed ways to advance the peace process.” As Netanyahu’s visit follows a similar one by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which occurred two days earlier, it appears that Oman may start taking a more active role in the peace process.

Oman, like most of the region, never established diplomatic relations with Israel. In 1994, Sultan Qaboos received Yitzhak Rabin, the first Israeli prime minister to visit Oman. The two countries opened reciprocal trade representation offices in 1996, but Oman closedthem in 2000 at the start of the Second Intifada.

Despite the lack of normalized relations, Oman has been a supporter of the peace process. After Egypt signed the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978, Oman was one of the few Arab countries not to sever ties with Egypt. In February this year, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi visited the West Bank where he endorsed a two-state solution, stating, “There was a global desire to establish Israel after the first and second world wars. … Now the establishment of a Palestinian state has become a strategic necessity for all the world.”

In addition, Oman does have a history as a neutral mediator in regional conflicts that has earned it a reputation as the Switzerland of the Middle East. Infamously, Oman established a secret back-channel between Washington and Tehran that eventually led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The sultanate also held secret talks during the Iran-Iraq War and after Iraq invaded Kuwait, though both were to no avail. More recently in Yemen, Oman has hosted talks between the Houthis and the Saudis, negotiated the release of hostages, and helped evacuate the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Yemen.

News of Netanyahu’s visit to Oman has stoked hopes that the Gulf sultanate could serve as a regional broker for Israeli-Palestinian peace as part of President Trump’s anticipated “deal of the century.” Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy for the peace process, tweeted that Netanyahu and Qaboos’ meeting was “a helpful step for our peace efforts & essential to create an atmosphere of stability, security & prosperity” and that he hoped to see more.

Last month, Alawi said that while Oman would not take on a mediator role, it would help bring the Israelis and Palestinians together. He also said, “Israel is a state present in this 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.”

This visit came amid other potential signs of Arab-Israeli normalization. A week ago Sunday, Israel’s Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev was in the UAE to accompany Israel’s judo team for the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, and Israeli gymnasts competed in a tournament in Qatar. In both cases, organizers agreed to allow the Israeli flag and national anthem. Additionally, there have been several cases of Israel secretly improving relations with various Arab countries, especially with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who share Israel’s concern about Iranian influence in the region and disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood. Last Tuesday, Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara spoke at a telecommunications conference in the UAE.

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