Netanyahu on Groundbreaking Oman Visit for Peace Process Talks

(Bloomberg) -- Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman Friday, the first official trip by an Israeli leader to the Gulf nation since 1996, for surprise talks with its reclusive leader on the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

Sultan Qaboos, the 77-year-old Omani ruler, and Netanyahu “discussed ways to push forward the peace process in the Middle East as well as some issues of mutual interest that would serve peace and stability in the region,” according to identical statements sent by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the state-run Oman news agency. The visit wasn’t made public until Netanyahu was back in Israel around 4 p.m. local time.

Netanyahu on Groundbreaking Oman Visit for Peace Process Talks

The trip comes as the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has triggered turmoil in the Middle East as it casts a shadow over the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Trump administration made the 33-year-old de facto ruler of the kingdom a cornerstone of its entire Mideast policy, including a yet-to-be released plan to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks.

“Netanyahu wants to reset the narrative, to show that Israel’s here, Israel’s a player, Israel’s still talking,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, a political scientist specializing in the Gulf at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

‘Extensive’ Contacts

Netanyahu, who went to Oman with his wife as well as Mossad intelligence agency director Yossi Cohen, said the visit was aimed at “tightening relations with other nations in the region, while leveraging Israel’s strengths in security, technology and finance.” He said the meeting was the result of “extensive” contacts between the two nations.

It also followed a trip earlier this week to Oman by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has refused to deal directly with Netanyahu and broke off communication with the Trump administration over its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December.

Qaboos, who rarely appears in public, was seen walking in a hallway with Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, in photographs circulated by the Israeli prime minister’s office. Qaboos’s office issued a video clip of the meeting with the 69-year-old Israeli leader.

Netanyahu left Israel on a leased executive jet at about 1 p.m. Thursday and overflew Saudi Arabia on the way to Oman, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of its diplomatic sensitivity. 

Dinner Until Dawn

Qaboos lavishly entertained the prime minister and his entourage, with the two
leaders stayed up talking till dawn, the official said. Calling the meeting a “breakthrough,” the official said it is intended to lead to more public activities.

Hours before leaving, Netanyahu hinted of a renewed regional diplomatic push, telling reporters at a business conference, that a number of neighboring nations were “extending their hands” to normalize relations with Israel.  

The only two Arab states that recognize Israel are Egypt and Jordan, though relations are bumpy and Netanyahu is rarely seen publicly in either country.

With Netanyahu likely facing elections in the coming months, the Oman visit is a reminder to voters that his peace strategy is not completely dependent on the larger Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said David Makovsky, a former member of the Obama administration’s Israel-Palestinian mediation team.

“The outreach to those states is under the table while this is beneficial as it is above the table,” said Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

Gaza Violence

As news of the Oman talks emerged, violence continued in the Gaza Strip in the seventh month of Friday demonstrations against the blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory by Israel and Egypt. Israeli snipers killed four Palestinians and a fifth was killed in an explosion while preparing a homemade bomb, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Another Palestinian was killed by Israeli troops during a demonstration outside Ramallah, the seat of Abbas’s government.

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