Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat is no surprise

Anyone contemplating the various “thorny knots” in the region will conclude that the “owners” of these knots accept to intersect in Muscat.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Oman's Sultan Qaboos, left, receives Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Muscat, Oman. (AP)
Oman's Sultan Qaboos, left, receives Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Muscat, Oman. (AP)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat was a media event that deserved all the attention it received but it is hardly surprising, so let’s stop pretending to be astonished.

During the last decades, top Israeli officials, such as Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, visited Oman. There are reports of visits by Israeli officials to other Arab capitals at different times and on different occasions and each time those trips kicked up a storm of controversy. Some of the ensuing debates were useful but most were just political auctions stuffed with populist slogans meant for settling old scores between various Arab capitals.

In the Arab world, Oman has always had its own peculiar outlook on things. Muscat has taken a different stand on the burning issues of the Arab world and has shown great wisdom and acumen. Oman, for example, never resorted to pompous discourse such as vowing “to throw Israel back to the sea” and has adopted a realistic approach to issues. Other Arab countries only recently discovered this approach.

Muscat never wavered on issues agreed upon collectively by Arab countries. Oman is part of the Arab League and it abides by the league’s literature, choices and decisions. When Arab leaders fell prey to their own rigid political cant, Muscat was ready to throw them a political lifeline to eliminate dead ends and allow the Arab narrative to continue without embarrassing the narrator.

There is speculation about the reasons for Netanyahu’s meeting with Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. There has been talk of an Iranian connection or a link with the Palestinian question. Some claimed symptoms of normalisation with Israel were taking root in the Arabian Gulf.

What is known is that Oman is not playing a mediating role in anything. Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said Muscat is trying to facilitate what other parties want. In other words, interests behind the scenes need to communicate with each other — through Oman of course.

The real question is: Who are these actors and what are these interests?

Israeli officials have visited several Arab capitals since the Madrid Conference, Camp David, Oslo and Wadi Araba. Arab capitals have framed the visits in different ways — at times as “peace efforts” or because the visitors were part of important international delegations or simply “to please Washington,” to borrow the phrase of former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani.

Muscat never did that, never feeling compelled to invent justifications and reasons, so much so that bin Alawi, commenting on Netanyahu’s visit and its timing, said that it was “not strange.”

“Not strange,” indeed. Hamas in the Gaza Strip is seeking, through Egyptian mediation, a long-term truce with Israel. The matter is being conducted in accordance with overt communications between Israel and Qatar, not to mention full diplomatic relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara. We should also not forget Egyptian-Israeli communications concerning Gaza in times of war as well as in times of peace.

There is no mystery because Israel has a say in Syria’s fate. It is dictating its conditions for positioning along the border between the two countries while exerting painful military pressure on Iranian positions in Syria, despite the strain it causes in relations with Moscow.

There is no surprise because, whether people in the region like it or not, Israel is a key player in the game of stability and tension in the Middle East. Within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002, communication with Israeli leaders was permissible.

Hours after the arrival of Sultan Qaboos’s envoy to Ramallah and the delivery of the sultan’s message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian National Council announced its hard-line decisions: the PLO withdraws from its agreements with the occupation authorities; the recognition of the State of Israel is suspended; and the Palestinian Authority ceases all security coordination with Israel.

The two events may be unrelated but, then again, they might turn out to be tightly connected. Whatever was being cooked up has necessitated a Palestinian escalation against developments brewing in Muscat.

Netanyahu’s visit was a few days before the second round of US sanctions against Iran went into effect. The region is entering an era that requires close monitoring.

Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah hinted that the region is heading towards developments quite different from the ones that preceded the sanctions. US Defence Secretary James Mattis’s statement about a direct US intervention in Yemen portends dispossessing Tehran of its Yemeni card.

Iran will not be able to withstand international US-led pressures. It can expect much pain that will inevitably lead to major transformations and new negotiations.

The region seems to be on the brink of major decisions and crucial changes in the approaches to many issues. A Turkish-Russian-German-French summit in Istanbul did not include Iran. A settlement in Syria sounds imminent. Meetings in London of the Mini-Group for Syria reveal that the world is positioning itself to pressure Russia as the world refuses to let a settlement in Syria depend on the wishes of the Syrian regime.

It may be discovered that Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat is a tiny detail in a vast map about to witness major transformations. The visit took place under the auspices of the United States and approved by Gulf states. The entire region took notice. Tehran’s “affectionate” reservation about the event indicates its concern about its own crisis.

Anyone contemplating the various “thorny knots” in the region will conclude that the “owners” of these knots accept to intersect in Muscat, despite each one’s different agenda. Therefore, it is “not surprising” that Oman should launch another workshop in which it does not play the role of a mediator but rather that of a vital facilitator for connections that this party or the other ardently desires.