Despite regional turmoil, President Trump’s grand Middle East strategy to unite Israel with the Saudis and other Gulf Arab powers against Iran and lay the groundwork for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is making unexpected progress away from the limelight.
The latest sign: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unannounced trip last week to Oman, the first by an Israeli leader in more than two decades. That visit has been followed by a string of other overtures Israel has made toward Gulf Arab states, including another taboo-breaking public appearance in the United Arab Emirates by Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev.
The flurry of diplomatic activity with Arab powers that traditionally avoid overt dealings with Israel has “been good for the optic for both Netanyahu and the Trump administration,” advertising the fact that “relevant regional peace partners are in place to support a possible new Israeli-Palestinian ‘deal’ before it is being launched,” said Assaf Orion, a former Israel Defense Forces general and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, which borders Saudi Arabia and has often played the role of regional mediator with Iran, could be critical to Mr. Trump’s push to isolate Tehran after the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. The Arab states could put behind-the-scenes pressure on the Palestinians to accept the much-anticipated peace deal being put together by White House aide and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“The symbolism of what the Israelis are doing is key,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East analyst with the Center for American Progress think tank. “The [Netanyahu] visit signaled to Iran that Israel is quite interested in developing ties with Iran’s neighbors in a way that could further the cause of Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure against Tehran.”
The overtures have caught the attention of the regime in Tehran and hard-line Palestinian elements. An article this week on Mr. Netanyahu’s Oman visit in the conservative Iranian newspaper Kayhan, said to be close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, carried the headline, “Arab Rulers Stabbing Palestinians in the Back.” The article quoted the Palestinian Hamas radical group as warning that the visit could have “grave repercussions on the Palestinians and their just cause.”
By contrast, Jason Greenblatt, Mr. Trump’s Middle East envoy, hailed Mr. Netanyahu’s trip on Twitter as a major boost to U.S. policy in the region.
“This is a helpful step for our peace efforts and& essential to create an atmosphere of stability, security and prosperity between Israelis, Palestinians and their neighbors. Looking forward to seeing more meetings like this!” Mr. Greenblatt tweeted.
The flurry of Israeli diplomacy may be all the more pertinent amid the diplomatic crisis sparked by the apparent killing Oct. 2 in Turkey of U.S.-based Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi.
Mr. Trump’s overall strategy toward the region has depended heavily on the establishment of stronger relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But Riyadh’s reliability as a partner capable of bringing other Gulf powers on board has been thrown into question amid allegations that Mr. Khashoggi was killed on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi royal family.
“With the Saudis seemingly sidelined, the Trump administration is now looking to Oman, knowing that the Omanis have this sort of neutral role as a potential mediator,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a regional analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“If things looked like they were potentially going to stall on the whole push for a normalization between Israel and the Arab world, the idea is that you could have Omanis take on the role of trying to advance this normalization and also openly embrace the idea of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
Out in the open
Mr. Netanyahu long boasted of warming ties with key Arab states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel. But those ties — still largely unpopular among the Arab public — have rarely been acknowledged so publicly.
That changed Friday when the conservative Israeli leader suddenly appeared in Oman with a delegation that included his wife, his national security adviser, his foreign ministry director and the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. The group was met by longtime Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
“These were important talks, both for the state of Israel and very important talks for Israel’s security,” Mr. Netanyahu told his Cabinet afterward. “There will be more.”
As he spoke, the region was watching another subtle Israeli move. Ms. Regev, the Israeli culture minister, was in the United Arab Emirates at a judo tournament to partake in a scene that would have seemed unthinkable just weeks ago: An Israeli Cabinet minister, tears of joy filling her eyes, was proudly singing her country’s national anthem at a sports event in the heart of the Arab world.
Ms. Regev also toured the grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Wearing a loosely wrapped headscarf and the traditional floor-length gown known as an abaya, she was warmly welcomed by local officials.
Oman as mediator?
It remains to be seen how Oman — an anomaly among the Gulf Arab powers that also has healthy relations with Iran — feels about the prospect of aligning with Israel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia against Tehran.
But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the more basic matter of recognizing Israel’s existence as a legitimate nation, the Omanis seem poised to take on a leadership role in the wake of Mr. Netanyahu’s visit.
Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah made international headlines after the visit by describing Israel as an accepted Middle East nation.
“Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this,” he said. “The world is also aware of this fact, and maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same and also bear the same obligations.”
A Foreign Ministry statement this week asserted that the sultanate now “supports any sincere effort which may contribute to providing a conducive environment to resume peace efforts and negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian sides to reach a fair, comprehensive and balanced solution.”
But the Omanis have also long positioned themselves as defenders of Palestinian rights. Days before the Netanyahu visit, the Omani sultan received Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for a visit in Muscat, Oman’s capital. Also, the Foreign Ministry statement this week insisted that “the Palestinian people have suffered and are still suffering a lot to get their legitimate rights.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an emotional issue with the Arab public, and relations will likely remain limited without a peace agreement.
Israeli forces have killed over 160 Palestinians during months of Hamas-led protests in the Gaza Strip against an Israeli blockade and a deepening humanitarian crisis. The peace process has been frozen for years, and Mr. Abbas cut ties with Washington after the White House recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year and moved its embassy to the city.
The Palestinians fear the Trump administration is trying to rally support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in order to pressure them into accepting a peace plan that falls far short of their demands.
Mr. Schanzer said Mr. Kushner has been central to the U.S. push to foster closer relations between Israel and the Gulf states — relations that may not be formalized but will constitute a “regional architecture.”
“Kushner has ended up being the guy that’s done the outreach with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and with the other Gulf Arab states to try and advance this regional architecture idea, and it began to meld with this Trump Israel-Palestine peace plan as well,” Mr. Schanzer said.
Although the Trump administration has not been forthcoming about its strategy, he said, several officials have offered “vague statements and innuendos” indicating that the strategy’s goal involves “marginalizing Palestinian positions and getting the Gulf Arab powers to pressure the Palestinians to maybe accept less or something different than they had been demanding before.”
“But this would also involve getting the Arab states, along with perhaps the U.S. and others, to push for more prosperity and economic incentives for the Palestinians,” Mr. Schanzer said. “So the idea was to get the Gulf Arab states more involved in the peace process to bring the Palestinians along and make them willing to accept a little less on the political front in exchange for more on the institutional and economic development front.”
Some analysts say the Omanis are uniquely positioned to play a go-between role, boasting a long track record of navigating divisive feuds in a turbulent region. At a minimum, Sultan Qaboos appears to be ushering in an era in which Gulf Arab powers can be more open about their relations with Israel.
“One of the obstacles to progress with the Palestinians has been their notion that they can hold Israeli relations with others in the region hostage,” Mr. Orion, the former Israeli general, told The Washington Times. “At least some Arab states, while moving cautiously, are saying: ‘We don’t want our policy to be held hostage. Maybe we don’t want to go totally public with it, but we are having relations with Israel, which may even help its relations with the Palestinians.’”