Cautious GCC support to Oman over Mideast initiatives

Netanyahu in April said Israeli contacts with moderate Arab countries were developing “because of our common concern with Iran and its aggressive designs.”
Sunday 04/11/2018
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) walks with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. (Office of Israeli Prime Minister)
Rare visit. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) walks with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. (Office of Israeli Prime Minister)

LONDON - It appears Oman is about to try to tackle one of the most complex and long-standing disputes of modern times: the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the Trump administration’s yet-to-be-revealed “deal of the century” likely to factor in.

In an unannounced visit, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travelled to Muscat, where he met with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the first such meeting of its kind in more than 20 years.

Netanyahu, whose high-profile entourage included Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, discussed with Sultan Qaboos “ways to advance the peace process in the Middle East,” Omani reports stated.

The visit, which was at the invitation of Sultan Qaboos, involved the two leaders exchanging views on “a number of regional issues of common concern.”

The vagueness in the official statement from both sides has been a source of speculation. Some US news outlets, including the New York Times, supported the theory that the motivation from the Israeli side was having “Oman as a conduit to Tehran.”

Netanyahu in April said Israeli contacts with moderate Arab countries were developing “because of our common concern with Iran and its aggressive designs.”

“Israel is a state present in the region and we all understand this. The world is also aware of this and maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as other states] and to also bear the same obligations,” Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said at a conference October 27 in Bahrain.

Bin Alawi also said a solution must be reached in the Palestinian territories.

“The Palestinians will never enjoy security and the entire Arab region will not settle and terrorism will not end,” he said, adding that the path of peace in the Palestinian territories will see global support.

“An independent Palestinian state is a strategic demand without which stability can never be achieved,” he said. “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.”

Host Bahrain praised the Omani steps to secure Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“We have never ever questioned the wisdom and farsightedness of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos in trying to help and do their part in trying to reach a solution for this [Palestinian-Israeli] issue,” Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said at the conference. “We look forward to Sultan Qaboos succeeding in his effort.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir supported the Omani initiative and said Riyadh believed the key to normalising relations with Israel is through the peace process.

Israel has full diplomatic relations with only Egypt and Jordan among Arab countries.

Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to visit Oman in decades. In 1996, then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres went to Oman to open the Israeli trade representative’s office in Muscat.

His predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, had made the first trip by an Israeli prime minister to Oman in 1994.

On his visit on October 23, Netanyahu was accompanied by senior officials, including the head of the Mossad intelligence agency and his national security adviser.

The London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visited Oman a few days before Netanyahu, was supportive of the Omani drive. Unidentified sources told the newspaper that Abbas supports any intervention that could save the situation. However, the Palestinian sources also said they were pessimistic about a breakthrough considering the complexities of the issue.

Oman is known for having the most independent foreign policy among the Gulf Cooperation Council members, one that has at times put it at odds with other members.

In 2014, officials in the Gulf were taken by surprise over news that Muscat secretly brokered talks between the United States and Iran that led to the nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers.

Oman appears to have started the ball rolling with bin Alawi visiting Ramallah on October 31 to personally deliver a letter from Sultan Qaboos to Abbas on Netanyahu’s visit.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi blasted the Netanyahu visit to Oman, saying the Israeli prime minister “seeks to divide Muslim countries.”

Iran extended an invitation to Sultan Qaboos’s special representative, Deputy Prime Minister Sayyid Asa’ad bin Tariq Al Said, to visit Tehran.

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