little more than a week ago, the drumbeat of news concerning Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was briefly interrupted by an extraordinary video coming from Oman’s state news agency.
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Contact between the Israelis and the countries of the Persian Gulf has taken place for some time, and the Omanis have been particularly “forward-leaning,” as they say in Washington—then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Muscat in late 1994, when peace between Israelis and Palestinians seemed like a real possibility.
Shimon Peres, who succeeded Rabin, hosted the Omani foreign minister in Jerusalem in 1995, and the countries established trade offices in 1996 that were shuttered after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.
Netanyahu’s visit was different, of course, because there is no peace process and the sultan even signaled he was willing to normalize ties with Israel.
That goes significantly beyond the sorts of contact between Israel and other Arab states that has picked up in recent years amid their confluence of interests regarding Iran and Islamist extremism.
Retired Saudi officials have been willing to sit on the same stage as their retired Israeli counterparts, the Emiratis host what is essentially an Israeli diplomatic outpost in Abu Dhabi under the guise of the International Renewable Energy Agency, and there are persistent whispers of regular meetings among Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Gulf intelligence chiefs. Yet no leader in the Gulf has gone as far as Qaboos by meeting so publicly with Netanyahu.
Why did Qaboos go so far out on a limb? Essentially, he was taking out an insurance policy.
Qaboos has often played the role of quiet regional troubleshooter and exchanger of messages for those who cannot—or prefer not to—speak to each other.
It is now well known that much of the groundwork between the United States and Iran on the 2015 nuclear agreement was undertaken through an Omani channel.
Over the last year, there was also speculation that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was seeking to use Muscat’s good offices in Tehran to help bring an end to the devastating conflict in Yemen.
Thus, speculation was rampant among journalists, analysts, and the Twitterati that the Israeli prime minister and the Omani sultan were discussing either Palestinians or Iran. It was probably both—but that was not the point of the visit, at least for the Omanis.
Ismail Sabri Abdullah, the minister of planning under former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, once neatly, if crudely, articulated the logic behind the Egyptian outreach to Israel in the late 1970s, remarking, “If we wanted a good relationship with Washington, we needed to spend the night in Tel Aviv.”
Abdullah, an unreconstructed leftist and anti-Zionist, was either reflecting a boorish and anti-Semitic view that Jews control U.S. foreign policy or was expressing a cleareyed calculation that because of the special relationship between the United States and Israel, Egyptians stood to benefit from coming to terms with the Israelis.
Something similar—without the boorishness—is at play behind the Israeli leader’s open visit to Muscat.
Even though Oman has been a trusted interlocutor in the past, there are new political and diplomatic pressures on the country that a very public visit with the Israelis can help mitigate or relieve.
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