The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman has raised eyebrows throughout the region. Coming one week after that of Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Netanyahu’s visit has been considered by some as a rare opportunity for jumpstarting a moribund peace process, while others see it as a betrayal of Arab solidarity. More significant is the question of why Oman’s Sultan Qaboos has decided now, after decades of secret channel communications, to publicly acknowledge its relationship with Israel and signal a warmer approach towards the Jewish state.
Interestingly, as Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed notes, the meeting has not created the backlash on the Arab street or among media observers that one would have expected in previous years: “The nonchalant reactions of the Arab public and media to the Omani announcement that they received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat illustrates how much the region has changed.... The Arab culture of rejecting relations and normalization with Israel is deeply rooted and still alive, but what’s new is that it is no longer the engine moving the policies of Arab governments, which they used to throw around like a ball against each other.... These are important changes in the region, and they will not stop with the activities of the Israeli leaders in Muscat. It is actually the start of a political division built on conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.”
That doesn’t mean that there has been no reaction at all. In an op-ed for Jordan Times, Hasan Abu Nimah admits that Oman has the right to conduct its foreign policy as it pleases, but it shouldn’t ignore Israel’s track record with the Palestinians: “Oman is an independent state, whose respected leaders are known for their wisdom and solemn and responsible decisions. As such, the Arab Sultanate has every right to conduct its foreign policy independently as any other sovereign state would do. Except that the situation with respect to this unusual development is somehow different. In this case, the guest, who was very warmly received in a prominent Arab country, happens to be the leader of an aggressor and an outlaw state.... It is a very sad and depressing situation to find the Arab nation so divided, its massive wealth so wastefully, purposelessly and chaotically squandered at a time when such division and such waste puts every Arab state at ascertained existential risk.”
The Iranians have been even more critical of Oman’s rapprochement with Israel, and of a subsequent speech made by Oman’s foreign minister. Writing for Tehran Times, Mohammad Ghaderi warns that Oman may be endangering domestic stability without solving larger regional questions: “Bin Alawi’s speech, made under obvious pressure from U.S. to change the atmosphere in favor of Zionist regime, contained some remarks that Sultanate of Oman is certainly aware of its consequences.... Muscat’s officials must heed the warnings that this behavior will neither result in the same conclusion that Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat reached in making peace with Israel, nor will it have any benefit for Muslim community or for resolving Palestine’s issues. So, don’t let your name to be recorded in history as the supporter of a mock-up, usurper and anti-human regime, in case the future generations remember you in contempt.”
Others have pushed back against such criticism. Oman’s own main daily, The Times of Oman, has been quick to point out that instability and the current impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinians doesn’t serve the interests of anyone in the region: “The past few years showed clearly that there is no way but to reach a comprehensive, fair and permanent peace that achieves security and stability, not only for the Palestinian people, but also for the Israeli people and the region as a whole, since the solution of the Palestinian issue is central to peace and stability in the region so that its people could face the various challenges that face them now.... The Sultanate would take satisfaction in seeing security, peace and stability established in the region and for the region’s people and when these countries cooperate in accordance with the principles advocated by the Sultanate for the achievement of joint interests today and tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, reminding everyone that Mr. Netanyahu’s visit to Oman didn’t amount to the recognition of the state of Israel, The National’s editorial urges all the concerned parties to seize the opportunity for a possible peace deal: “The region is in dire need of movement towards a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.... Regardless of how we have reached this point, this is a moment to be seized as an opportunity to secure a peace deal. That requires honesty from all sides but above all, it requires the rights of Palestinians to be respected and placed at the forefront of any negotiations. If the Israelis are willing to show courage and respect the Palestinians’ right to statehood, as well as their status as citizens with the same protection as Israelis, this could be the time for all parties concerned to negotiate a peace settlement that is beneficial to all”
Yedioth Ahronoth’s Smadar Perry is among those in the Israeli media who have suggested that Oman’s approach to mediation may prove to be effective in this case: “Oman has a unique method to resolve conflicts called Sabla. This is essentially a way of mediating between the two sides seated opposite each other, which allows them to present their arguments and demands, and helps them to reach an agreement. The meeting of Sultan Qaboos bin Said—the ruler of Oman—with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Friday, is an attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the method of Sabla.... Now, the Sultan and his foreign minister want to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table through the means of Sabla, and they are working together with the United States. The Palestinians can boycott the US and Trump, but they can not brush off the Sultan of Oman.”
Finally, Ronen Bergman, also writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, stretches the argument a bit further, by arguing that Oman’s importance to Israel may well lie beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “Israel's possible gain from this visit is threefold: Primarily, Oman can serve as a channel to many countries—including Iran, Qatar and Syria—and is seen by all as an honest broker. Through Oman, Israel could establish covert ties with any player in the region.... Secondly, the hope is that other countries would take courage from this visit and also expose their own covert ties with Israel. Finally, for Netanyahu, exposing the ties with Oman is another layer in his Middle Eastern strategy, which includes creating covert alliances—and public ones whenever possible—with moderate Sunni nations and movements, in an effort to prevent Iran's spread throughout the region, as well as undermine Tehran's regional power, all the while proving that Israel can normalize its ties with Arab nations even without solving the Palestinian issue.”