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Oman and Israel

November 13, 2018

Oman and Israel

Oman Paves Way for Israel’s Diplomatic Acceptance in MENA

Oman has built a reputation for itself as a neutral actor in the Middle East. The nation’s officials walked a diplomatic tight rope during the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, managing to maintain relations with significant parties on all sides of the uprising, in addition to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Since the 1990s Oman has facilitated the release of Western hostages on numerous occasions, and Oman’s role in the brokering of unofficial talks between the US and Iran leading up to the 2015 Joint Comprehension Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, cannot be overlooked.

But perhaps the biggest test of Oman’s mediation abilities comes on the heels of an historic meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On October 23rd, Sultan Qaboos bin Said welcomed the Premier just days after hosting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

 

Trade and Diplomacy History

 

The visit is not the first diplomatic exchange between Israel and Oman, the two nations have fostered a reliable, if sometimes thinning, relationship over nearly the past 3 decades. After a modest easing of tensions following the Oslo Accords, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman for the first time in 1994. Over the next two years the nations traded hosting duties; Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi made the trip to Jerusalem first, then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres visited Oman. During this meeting, the Israeli Trade Representation Office was established in Oman, with a goal to “to develop reciprocal economic and trade relations with Oman, as well as cooperation in the spheres of water, agriculture, medicine, and communications.”

The effort, however, was short-lived. Oman closed the office in 2000 after the Second Intifada. As Israel struggled with the political ramifications of the damaging optics associated with violence on the Gaza Strip, Oman distanced itself. That is until 2006 when, during a conference organized by Philadelphia-based think tank Global Interdependence Center, Omani Ambassador Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy declared that Oman does not take part in the economic boycott against Israel, which was a significant statement at the time.

Though the reality of this statement had been in effect for some time, the public declaration reinforced Oman’s position on Israel as it sought both membership into the WTO and diversification of its economy through increased trade with the US. By 2008 the two nations resumed talks, beginning with a meeting in Qatar between Yusef bin Alawi and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Despite amenable rhetoric, at this stage trade volume remains insignificant.

 

Geopolitical Implications

 

Such has been the status quo for the past decade, which is why Sultan Qaboos’ surprise meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu has sent political shockwaves though the region and the international community at large. Far beyond the tepid good will gestures of the past, Sultan Qaboos has called for a normalization of relations with Israel as well as recognition of its statehood. “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this,” bin Alawi said, “The world is also aware of this fact. Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as other states] and also bear the same obligations.”

Seizing the momentum of the landmark meeting, Israeli Minister of Transportation and Intelligence Yisrael Katz departed for Oman on November 5 to take part in an international transportation conference. The big-ticket item on Israel’s agenda was the “Tracks for Regional Peace” initiative, which proposes to connect the Gulf states to Israel and the Mediterranean sea via railway. The plan seeks to unite the region by fostering “normalization through strength,” and, importantly, bypasses Iran along its route.

Curbing the rising influence of Iran may just be a strong enough impetus for Israel and the Gulf states to surmount their antagonistic history and work toward cooperation. Iran’s threat creates a de facto alliance in the region, and an economic alliance of this magnitude would situate Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states on an axis against Iran. The plan also enjoys the support from the US.

Whether or not this ambitious project will come to fruition remains to be seen, but Sultan Qaboos’ contribution to bringing Israel in to the Arab fold is undeniable. Continued dialogue between Israel and its Arab neighbors amidst the backdrop of growing political and environmental threats could usher in a new era of, albeit begrudging, cooperation.

 

Contribution of Tommie-Lynne Hellwig (2018 iStrategic intern)