The Israeli national anthem playing at the Abu Dhabi judo competition on Sunday may have been music to the ears, but it was part of a larger symphony in the Middle East, with Israel playing first fiddle.
Times appear to be changing. After his country permitted Air India to use its airspace for direct flights to Israel earlier this year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recognized Israel’s right to exist and discussed future ties with the Jewish state in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. This week, an Israeli delegation traveled to the Muslim central African nation of Chad for talks on the possibility of renewing diplomatic ties between the two countries. Next week, Israel’s minister of transportation will travel to Oman for a conference on regional transportation, following a one-day visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And there are plenty more examples.
Are Israel’s relations with the Arab world improving? Judging by recent events in the diplomatic world, it certainly would seem so. And that’s what makes Netanyahu’s visit last week to Oman at Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said’s invitation so significant.
Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel-Aviv University, told JNS, “The visit [of Netanyahu to Oman] in itself is significant, having been so public. Moreover, adding Oman to the block of moderate states is valuable, on top of the great benefits that Oman brings that has to do with agriculture, human capital and industry.”
‘The focus is on Gulf interests’
Shaul Yanai, an expert at Hebrew University’s Middle Eastern Studies Department, told JNS that he is not sure the visit will change anything in the near future, though it “reflects that in the Persian Gulf, Israel is no longer an outcast.”
“Oman is an independent state in the Persian Gulf,” said Yanai, author of The Political Transformation of Gulf Tribal States. “It has a good relationship with both sides — Iran and the Saudi coalition. The sultan didn’t ask anyone if he can invite Netanyahu to his country.”
Like other countries in the Arab world, Oman began establishing preliminary ties with Israel following the Oslo peace process in the mid-1990s. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited with at Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said in 1994, and his successor, Shimon Peres, visited again in 1996, where they established a trade office. However, relations were frozen following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.
Yanai pointed out that the visit to Oman is more important than the actual relationship, which existed already. So why did Oman decide now to host Netanyahu openly? The reason, he said, is that it needs Israeli help on the economic crisis there, which is worsening each year.
“In the Persian Gulf, the broad understanding among countries in the last few years is that they must look after their own needs without the broader connection of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” explained Yanai. “The focus is on Gulf interests and, of course, the doors that Israel can open for them in the U.S. and other Western countries. Netanyahu’s relationship with the current administration in Washington is very valuable to them. Oman, especially, needs the help now more than ever.”
He added that the Gulf states are frustrated by the Palestinians because these countries have much more pressing needs, such as economic problems and strategic issues, than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yanai emphasized that Arab states are saying that the peace process needs to move forward. However, they are also signaling to the Palestinians that they will no longer reject a relationship with Israel that could be greatly beneficial.
“The hope,” he said, “is that Israeli military strength and a strategic relationship with the U.S. will hold back Iranian aggression a few more years, and maybe something will change in Iran.”
He believes it might be possible that Israel can play a larger role in Gulf politics, “mainly as one more front against Iran.”