Israel’s prime minister visits Oman, an Arab monarchy—and is welcomed
Print edition | Middle East and Africa
Nov 3rd 2018 | JERUSALEM
TWO UNUSUAL photographs have been making the rounds on Arab social media. The first (pictured) is of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, being received by Sultan Qaboos of Oman at his palace in Muscat on October 26th. The second, taken three days later, is of Israel’s culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, with Emirati officials at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Responses to the photographs ranged from positive surprise to angry bemusement. Arabs, though, should get used to such scenes.
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Mr Netanyahu’s visit was the first by an Israeli prime minister to the Gulf in over two decades. Israel has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. But its ties with the Gulf have been improving for years. A common enemy, Iran, has brought it closer to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The issue of the Palestinians, which long divided them, has been pushed to the back burner.
Iran may also have come up during Mr Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat, which surprised even Gulf officials. Oman has maintained ties to the Islamic republic, annoying the Saudis and hawks in America. Welcoming Mr Netanyahu may blunt some of their criticism. It also makes Oman a potential interlocutor between Israel and Iran. Oman played a similar role, passing notes between America and Iran, during the Obama administration.
No matter the purpose, the trip was important. It took months of secret negotiations, handled by the chief of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency. “Israel has historically maintained under-the-table ties with many nations,” says an Israeli diplomat. “The problem has always been how to bring these out in the open. With the visit to Oman, Netanyahu has broken a glass ceiling.”