After Oman Israel Sees Good Omen

By Benni Avni

The Sun

November 3, 2018


Over the weekend, Oman’s sultan, Qaboos Bin Said, stunned the region by welcoming Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, to his palace in Muscat. He went even further and encouraged Israel to publicly report the visit. Omani TV beamed handshakes and smiles across the Arab world.

Such public theatrics fly in the face of decades of refusal by many Arab nations to even acknowledge Israel’s existence. Mr. Netanyahu said the visit was in line with his policy of “deepening relations with the states of the region.”

Critics minimized the event’s significance: Tiny Oman, after all, is neither Sunni nor Shiite, and plays no significant role in regional power politics. Yet Israel’s minister of culture and sport, Miri Regev, visited another Gulf state just a few days later.

And Ms. Regev is a hardliner; at last summer’s Cannes film festival, she wore a long dress provocatively laced with an image of he skyline of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. Yet this week in Abu Dhabi, she was photographed donning traditional Arab garb and signing the guest book at the world’s third-largest mosque.

After Oslo, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin also visited Oman. Relations were severed soon after, though, as Israeli-Palestinian peace hopes diminished. Remaining ties, if any, turned deeply secretive.

While Jerusalem’s relations with Muslim leaders from Morocco to Indonesia have long been kept private (albeit poorly), increasingly they’re now publicized and even debated in the Arabic press and public forums.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, particularly under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been building up ties to Israel, mostly to defend against Iran’s rise, though it isn’t admitting that publicly. Jordan and Egypt already have peace pacts with the Jewish nation.

Here’s the kicker: Greater acceptance of Israel will leave Palestinians the odd man out, perhaps forcing them to relax their non-starter demands, which have stood in the way of a real peace with Israel.

The Palestinian cause was once the organizing principle behind ever-shaky Arab unity. But now it’s losing steam in the region. The rise of ISIS and other extremists challenging Arab leaders has made some of Israel’s neighbors reconsider whether Israel is really their No. 1 threat.

Even more significantly, President Obama’s Middle East “rebalancing” — widely seen as an American tilt toward Iran — genuinely scared Arab Sunni leaders, prompting them to consider some kind of private alliance with Israel. Mr. Netanyahu, Tehran’s fiercest public opponent, convinced them they could have a strong ally in Jerusalem.

Israel’s improved standing may also be the result, at least in part, of President Trump’s plans for an Israeli-Palestinian “deal of the century.” It’s based on an old Bibi idea that’s reportedly been incorporated into the plan — and that turns a decades-old American approach to Mideast peacemaking on its head.

American mediation since the 1990s had been premised on the notion that, with a new Palestinian state established and living harmoniously next to Israel, the region’s Arabs would make peace with Israel and a “new Middle East” would emerge.

Bibi has pushed the opposite: As more Arab states make peace with Israel, Ramallah will have no choice but to get with the program.

That “outside-in” approach suffered a blow recently, with Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. With warm personal relations between the crown prince and President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Riyadh had become pivotal for the outside-in plan. The Saudis still wield much power in the region, but it’s not clear how much they can be relied upon after the Khashoggi affair.  

So Team Trump may have pushed Oman and the emirates to step up, demonstrating their new approach is alive and well: After Mr. Netanyahu’s Oman visit, Mr. Trump’s Israel adviser, Jason Greenblatt, was quick to tweet: “This is a helpful step for our peace efforts essential to create an atmosphere of stability, security prosperity between Israelis, Palestinians their neighbors. Looking forward to seeing more meetings like this!”  

Needless to say, no one should count on a formal, lasting “peace in the Middle East” any time soon. When it comes to this region, far better to bet on new violence between anyone at any given time.

Yet there’s certainly nothing wrong with hoping that little Oman, where President Obama launched talks with Iran that transformed the Mideast, will once again turn the tide — this time in a welcome direction indeed.