What’s be­hind Is­rael’s re­newed flir­ta­tion with Oman

The Jerusalem Post - - FRONTLINES - • By ELIE PODEH

The of­fi­cial visit of Prime Min­is­ter Ne­tanyahu and Mos­sad chief Yossi Co­hen to Oman turned the spot­light on this dis­tant prin­ci­pal­ity in the Gulf that is un­fa­mil­iar to most Is­raelis.

Per­haps it will come as a sur­prise to many, but Is­raeli ties with Oman are not new; their first en­counter was in the early 1970s, af­ter Sul­tan Qa­boos seized power. At that time, Qa­boos faced a re­bel­lion in the south­ern Dho­far re­gion on the Ye­meni bor­der. The sul­tan feared the in­tru­sion of the Soviet Union and com­mu­nism from the neigh­bor­ing Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Ye­men.

Bri­tain, through an army of mer­ce­nar­ies, and Iran, the neigh­bor to the east, helped the Sul­tan sup­press the re­bel­lion. Is­rael, too, took part in this ef­fort, al­though its mag­ni­tude was never clar­i­fied. How­ever, it seems that Is­rael’s part in­cluded ad­vice, guid­ance and pos­si­bly even arms sup­plies. It should be em­pha­sized that in the 1960s Is­rael also as­sisted the roy­al­ists in north­ern Ye­men in their strug­gle against Egypt, and there­fore it is no sur­prise that Is­rael helped Oman as well.

Be­sides the fact that Is­rael sought al­lies in the Mid­dle East, Oman’s im­por­tance de­rives from its graph­i­cal and strate­gic lo­ca­tion in the Arab Per­sian Gulf and the Strait of Hor­muz.

Re­la­tions with Qa­boos have con­tin­ued since the early 1970s. It laid the foun­da­tion for the ties that de­vel­oped be­tween the two coun­tries in the 1990s, and is un­der­ly­ing the mod­er­ate po­si­tion that Oman has demon­strated to­ward the Arab-Is­raeli con­flict since the end of the 1970s. Oman sup­ported the 1978 Camp David Ac­cords be­tween Is­rael and Egypt, and af­ter the sign­ing of the peace treaty in 1979, Oman was one of the three Arab coun­tries (along­side Su­dan and Mo­rocco) which did not sever their diplo­matic re­la­tions with Egypt.

This fact is note­wor­thy es­pe­cially in view of the re­sult­ing del­i­cate po­si­tion that was im­posed on Oman vis-à-vis its Arab neigh­bors in the Gulf, which have boy­cotted Egypt. More­over, the Khome­ini revo­lu­tion in Iran in 1979 tainted the re­la­tions be­tween Oman and Iran, which was un­der the rule of the shah, an ally of Qa­boos. This in­de­pen­dent be­hav­ior be­came a fea­ture of Sul­tan Qa­boos’s for­eign pol­icy.

Be­gin­ning in 1980, Mos­sad agent Nachik Navot used to meet reg­u­larly with Qa­boos. The talks dealt with the com­mon in­ter­ests of the two coun­tries, which in­cluded con­cerns about the spread of Soviet in­flu­ence and ar­ma­ments in the Mid­dle East, the Ira­nian revo­lu­tion and the ad­vance­ment of the peace process.

Af­ter the Madrid Con­fer­ence, the sign­ing of the Oslo Ac­cords and the peace treaty with Jor­dan, there was a turn­ing point in Is­raeli-Omani re­la­tions. In Fe­bru­ary 1994, then-deputy for­eign min­is­ter Yossi Beilin held a se­cret meet­ing with a se­nior Omani of­fi­cial to dis­cuss re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. That led to Oman’s de­ci­sion to host the fifth meet­ing, in Muscat in April 1994, of the work­ing group on wa­ter in the con­text of the mul­ti­lat­eral talks of the Oslo process.

The in­volve­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion of Oman in the work­ing group on wa­ter and en­vi­ron­ment was not a se­cret. How­ever, the se­cret con­tacts be­tween Beilin and Yusuf bin Alawi, the for­eign min­is­ter of Oman, pre­pared the ground for the meet­ing be­tween prime min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin and Sul­tan Qa­boos, on De­cem­ber 27th, 1994, two months af­ter the sign­ing of the Is­raeli-Jor­da­nian peace treaty. This was the first of­fi­cial meet­ing be­tween an Is­raeli leader and an Arab ruler in the Gulf.

THIS VISIT ex­posed Oman to crit­i­cism from within the Arab world. As a re­sult, most in­ter­ac­tions con­tin­ued be­hind the scenes. Yet, for­eign min­is­ter Shi­mon Peres and his coun­ter­part, Alawi, met in pub­lic in Wash­ing­ton in June 1995. The Rabin as­sas­si­na­tion in Novem­ber 1995, and the pres­ence of Alawi, who rep­re­sented the sul­tanate, in the funeral, led to more overt re­la­tions. In Jan­uary 1996, Is­rael and Oman signed an agree­ment to open trade mis­sions. In April 1996 Peres vis­ited Oman (and Qatar). The visit took place at the sum­mer palace of the Sul­tan in Salalah.

He was ac­com­pa­nied by Dan Giller­man, chair­man of the Fed­er­a­tion of Is­raeli Cham­bers of Com­merce, as well as a num­ber of busi­ness­men in or­der to pro­mote eco­nomic ties. Peres’s ad­viser, Avi Gil, in­sisted that Peres be ac­cepted by a mil­i­tary pa­rade that in­cluded the Is­raeli an­them. In Septem­ber 1999, for­eign min­is­ter David Levy met with Alawi dur­ing the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly. How­ever, a year later, Oman closed the Is­raeli mis­sion as a re­sult of the out­break of the Pales­tinian In­tifada. It was only in 2008 that For­eign Min­is­ter Tzipi Livni met with Alawi when she par­tic­i­pated in the Doha Fo­rum in Qatar.

The most im­por­tant project car­ried out by Is­rael and Oman was the es­tab­lish­ment of the Mid­dle East De­sali­na­tion Re­search Cen­ter (MEDRC), inau­gu­rated in 1997. The project was the out­come of the talks in the mul­ti­lat­eral work­ing group on wa­ter and en­vi­ron­ment. The cen­ter was fi­nanced by the United States, the Euro­pean Union, Ja­pan, Oman and Is­rael.

Oman, an arid coun­try in need of de­sali­nated wa­ter, was in­ter­ested in es­tab­lish­ing the cen­ter in its ter­ri­tory and us­ing Is­raeli tech­nol­ogy. Within the um­brella of tech­nol­ogy co­op­er­a­tion, Oman and Is­rael could con­tinue to hold covert meet­ings. Is­raeli of­fi­cials could also meet with Arab of­fi­cials from the Gulf whose coun­tries do not have diplo­matic re­la­tions with Is­rael. Oman took ad­van­tage of hav­ing the cen­ter in its ter­ri­tory to de­velop de­sali­na­tion projects and to train lo­cal ex­perts. The cen­ter con­tin­ued to be ac­tive through­out the In­tifada.

Ne­tanyahu’s visit to Oman sym­bol­izes the re­newal of an old “ro­mance.” At the same time, Oman’s will­ing­ness to re­veal the meet­ing is in­dica­tive of bold­ness and self-con­fi­dence, es­pe­cially against the back­drop of the dead­lock be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans. In the lo­cal press, Qa­boos is por­trayed as a “man of peace.” In light of his fa­tal ill­ness, per­haps this is the le­gacy he wants to leave be­hind.

Yet, more con­cretely, two rea­sons may ex­plain the visit’s aims: One, an at­tempt to of­fer an Omani me­di­a­tion to the dor­mant Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace process. The fact that Abu Mazen vis­ited the Sul­tanate a few days ear­lier and that Alawi was sent to Ra­mal­lah af­ter the Ne­tanyahu visit may sup­port this th­e­sis. Sec­ond, Is­rael may have wanted to use the good of­fices of Oman, which en­joy good re­la­tions with Iran and/or Syria. Be­yond achiev­ing pres­tige vis-à-vis the Saudi and Qatari neigh­bors, Qa­boos can use Is­rael to reach out to the United States and the West in gen­eral.

In­ci­den­tally, Trans­porta­tion Min­is­ter Is­rael Katz is vis­it­ing the sul­tanate this week, tak­ing part in an in­ter­na­tional trans­porta­tion con­fer­ence. Katz will present his plan to build “a rail­road for peace” – an am­bi­tious plan con­nect­ing Is­rael with the Gulf through Jor­dan.

The two vis­its sub­stan­ti­ate once again that Is­rael is rec­og­nized as an im­por­tant player in the Arab Mid­dle East.

The writer teaches in the Depart­ment of Is­lamic and Mid­dle East­ern Stud­ies at the He­brew Uni­ver­sity of Jerusalem, and is a board mem­ber of Mitvim. He is cur­rently work­ing on a study of Is­rael’s se­cret re­la­tions with coun­tries in the Mid­dle East.


PRIME MIN­IS­TER Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu vis­its with Sul­tan Qa­boos bin Said in Oman.

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