In the last week of October 2018, something unusual though not quite unprecedented occurred — the Omani media reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had visited the sultanate of Oman and met with its Sultan Qaboos Said al Said, something that Netanyahu’s office also confirmed. The premier was accompanied by his wife and a delegation of officials which included the head of Mossad, his National Security Advisor, foreign ministry director, military secretary, and other officials.
The visit was kept under tight wraps and was announced only afterwards. Actually, this is not quite unprecedented. While Oman and Israel do not have diplomatic relations, in 1978 Oman had publicly supported then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s peace overtures to Israel, and was one of the only three Arab states that continued diplomatic relations with the Arab country after it recognized Israel. It then went on to play host to Israeli Prime Minister Itzak Rabin’s trip to Oman — the first public visit by an Israeli leader to an Arab Gulf state. Oman had thereafter played the role of a mediator in the international arena a number of times. Perhaps that is why the Sultanate has distinguished itself by its independent foreign policy and role as an intermediary.
Netanyahu and Sultan Qaboos issued a joint statement saying the two sides “discussed ways to advance the Middle East peace process and discussed a number of issues of mutual interest to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East.”
Of course, this is not the first Arab country to host an Israeli prime minister. Israel has diplomatic relations with Egypt and with Jordan. However, the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) to which Oman belongs and the other Arab countries maintain an Arab boycott of Israel with peace with the Jewish state contingent on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, not only has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not been resolved, it has entered into yet another difficult phase with the US announcing in November 2017 of its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. The Oslo accords had provided for the status of Jerusalem — holy for both Jews and Muslims — to be negotiated by both sides. While there was widespread condemnation of the move in the Arab and Muslim world, with the issue even being put to a vote in the UN General Assembly, the ground reality is quite different. The visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to Oman and more importantly the announcement of the visit by the Omani media is testimony to a trend which has been ongoing for some time in the region.
In spite of the official Arab boycott of Israel, the fact remains that for a while now Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies have been cultivating ties, albeit covertly, and sometimes not so covertly. For instance, in 2015 former Saudi General Dr. Anwar Majed Eshki and veteran Israeli diplomat Dore Gold had met in Jerusalem, in Washington DC, and even in India. The following year Dr.Eshki even led a Saudi delegation of academics and businesspersons to Jerusalem and met with Israeli officials. Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud had also in recent years openly met with retired Israeli generals Yaakov Amidror and Amos Yadlin, even going on to write an article in the Israeli broadsheet Haaretz. More recently it was acknowledged that the intelligence heads of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel met, along with the intelligence chiefs of other Arab countries, in Aqaba, Jordan in June 2018 to discuss a Middle East “settlement plan.” And in March 2018 Saudi Arabia gave Air India the right to fly over Saudi territory to Tel Aviv.
Following the Oman visit, at a regional defense conference in Manama, Bahrain on November 2, the Omani Foreign Minister said it might be “time for Israel to be treated the same (as states in the Middle East) and also bear the same obligations.”
Even after the Oman visit by Netanyahu, there has been a spate of visits by other Israeli officials to Gulf states which have no official diplomatic relations with it. Miri Regev, minister of culture and sport, paid an official visit to the United Arab Emirates where Israeli athletes were participating in a regional sporting event for the first time. Perceived to be a hardliner, she even toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara traveled to an international conference in Dubai; and more recently Israeli Transportation Minister Israel Katz travelled to Oman where he discussed a proposal for a rail line that would connect Israel and the Gulf states.
Leave alone condemnation, there has been no discernible concern voiced by any Sunni country. What does this demonstrate? To be sure, the Arab League had almost two decades ago signalled its willingness to normalize relations with Israel if the latter agreed to accept the Saudi peace plan. That did not happen. While Israel has withdrawn unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, it is difficult to envision any such disentanglement from the West Bank soon. Moreover, Israel and Gaza are again locked in a spiral of violence. Which points to two other factors: Israeli diplomacy and the threat of Iran to the region.
In order to decisively “normalize” relations with Israel, the GCC will have to look at a deal with the Palestinians.
In January 2018, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a speech delivered at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, underscored Israel’s hard power, citing it as a major factor of its success. Following his Oman visit, influential Saudi columnist Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote in the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya: “Israel has played an important role in hitting Iran’s growing influence in Syria. It took up roles that rejecting Arab countries couldn’t achieve. With this, military balance in the region was achieved and Israel became integral to regional security after it was once considered a poisonous apple that everyone avoided dealing with.”
These comments, which echo Netanyahu’s words regarding Israel’s military prowess have become the basis for Israel’s diplomatic success in the region and beyond. While African leaders may have been courting the Jewish state precisely for reasons of security and defence, countries like Egypt, under the presidency of Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, have renewed intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation to battle the Islamic State that has gained a foothold in the Sinai region.
The Gulf countries too find in Israel the perfect ally to counter the threat of Shiite Iran in the region, especially its proxies in Lebanon, its officers in Syria supported by Russia, its influence in Iraq, and its backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. As Iran was freed from the shackles of UN sanction in 2015 under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Gulf countries in anticipation of an economically more powerful Iran, turned to the region’s militarily most powerful state and Iran’s sworn enemy — Israel. It was due to consistent Israeli lobbying that sanctions on Iran have recently been renewed by the US. Israel has conducted airstrikes against Iranian presence in Syria, and has for long become the frontline state in the region against Iranian military assertiveness in the Arab world.
An alliance between Israel and the Gulf monarchies has been further necessitated by differences within the GCC, especially the boycott of Qatar and closer cooperation between the latter and Turkey and Iran, and a dithering Pakistani position. Soon after Netanyahu’s Oman visit, Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s deputy minister for public diplomacy said: “Iran poses an existential threat to these governments and regimes and they know Israel’s going to help them.”
According to a recent report by Al Arabiya news channel in Oman, Netanyahu is said to have conveyed through Oman a warning to Iran to stop building precision rockets on Lebanese territory or risk dragging the neighboring country into a third war with Israel.
Prior to the Oman visit, in October Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported that Israel’s military chief Gadi Eizenkot has held talks with his Saudi counterpart, major General Fayyad bin Hamid Raqed al-Ruwaili, in Washington. The two sides had discussed several regional issues, including Iran, during their meeting that took place on the sidelines of the Counter-Violent Extremist Organizations conference for military commanders. The Jerusalem Post noted that while the two sides had earlier participated in the conference in 2017 for the first time, there had been no reports of any such bilateral meeting. However, Eizenkot had made a rare interview with the Saudi-owned Elaph online newspaper in November 2017, during which he expressed Tel Aviv’s readiness to share intelligence with Riyadh to help boost their joint efforts to confront Tehran, which he said was the ‘biggest threat’ in the region: “We are ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence to confront Iran … There are many shared interests between us and Saudi Arabia.”
The fact that such exchanges are increasingly being made public signals that the ground is being created and public opinion is being prepared for an open recognition of such ties. The Israeli Department of Defense for instance released a photo where Eisenkot was seen seated at dinner at the same table as the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces Mohamed Farid, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of Jordan Lt.-Gen. Mahmoud Abdul Halim Freihat, as well as the Chief of Staff of Bahrain, Lt.-Gen. Dhiab bin Saqr Al Nuaimi. In addition, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in an interview called for Israel’s right to exist. In the same interview he said “Iran’s Supreme Leader ‘Makes Hitler Look Good.’”
However, in order to decisively “normalize” relations with Israel, the GCC will have to look at a deal with the Palestinians. It no longer remains the main issue on the Arab agenda, but is a raison d’être for radical groups and has been used to sway public opinion by self-serving individuals and organizations. In many Muslim countries it also remains a popular cause, and allows Iran, with its support for the Palestinians and the anti-Israel Hezbollah to steal a march over its Arab rivals. On November 8 in Istanbul, the International Union of Muslim Scholars, representing more than 80 countries, called on Thursday to reject the “normalization” with Israel, and named the Palestinian cause the first issue for Muslims all over the world.
US President Donald Trump and his advisers have begun developing their own concrete blueprint to end the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, with his son-in-law Jared Kushner said to be playing a major role. This plan remains heavily dependent on the Saudis, who lead the Sunni bloc. Oman with its reputation for independent foreign policy may yet lead the way. Yet, in spite of all alignments and re-alignments in the region, it remains difficult to envision an outright war there.