Omani Sultan Qaboos (left) and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu (28.10.18)image rights

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Despite the lack of diplomatic relations, the Omani Sultan hosted Mr. Netanyahu

Israel's leaders often refer to their country being in a "harsh neighborhood," but lately there have been some extraordinary signs of friendliness with parts of the Arab world.

At the end of last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife met the Sultan of Oman on an eight-hour visit – the first of its kind in more than two decades.

There was a sumptuous dinner, traditional Omani music and, as Mr. Netanyahu said to his cabinet, "very important conversations", he promised, more trips would follow.

At the time he spoke, Israeli Minister of Sport and Culture Miri Regev was involved in an international judo competition in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

She cried with joy when an Israeli athlete won a gold medal and the Israeli national anthem was played, something unique in the Arabian Peninsula.

Later, another Israeli official spoke at an event in the Arab Emirate of Dubai about "peace and security." Now the Minister of Transport is in the Omani capital Muscat and proposes a railway line between Israel and the Arab countries.

All this despite the fact that Israel has no official diplomatic relations with Oman or the United Arab Emirates.

"Iran included"

Like many Arab countries, they have historically avoided the state, which was founded in 1948, which led to the first in a series of Arab-Israeli wars.

"These visits are extremely important because they really melt the ice," says former Israeli diplomat Dore Gold, who sees "symbolism as a key element."

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Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have accused Iran of causing unrest in the region

"Gulf Arabs and Israeli officials have had meetings for years – they know each other – but there was a reluctance to take that further step," he continues. "That's changing now."

  • Why Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals
  • Israeli and Saudi relations are emerging

The main reason is a common concern about Iran. Like many Arab Gulf states, Israel worries about Iran's ambitions and sees it as a destabilizing force in the Middle East.

Tehran has been directly involved in conflict in Syria and Iraq, supporting rebels fighting in Yemen, as well as militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The Trump government, which is also trying to stem Iran, strongly supports the closer relations between the US allies in the Gulf and Israel.

Palestinians are careful

Palestinians, however, are alarmed by the new alliances. They are evolving as President Trump promises to submit his "Deal of the Century" plan to end their conflict with Israel.

They fear that his government is looking to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries to urge them to accept a peace agreement that does not meet their longstanding demands.

"This kind of attempt to normalize Israel within the region without Israel normalizing its relations with Palestine and remaining as occupying power is counterproductive and dangerous," says Hanan Ashrawi, a senior representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

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Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (right) visited Oman just days after the Israeli prime minister

She pointed out that recent developments threaten the legitimacy of the Arab Peace Initiative signed by the 22 members of the Arab League in 2002.

It offers Israel normal diplomatic relations with the Arab states only in return for its complete withdrawal from the Arab lands that it had conquered and occupied in the Middle East in 1967.

Currently, Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries that recognize Israel.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has stalled for a long time, and last year saw another setback.

The Palestinians – who want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state – rejected President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

They broke the link with Washington and said it was not an honest peace broker.

US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt continues his shuttle diplomacy across the region – and he was delighted with the Israeli Prime Minister's trip to Oman.

"This is a helpful step for our peace efforts and indispensable to create an atmosphere of stability, security and prosperity between Israelis, Palestinians and their neighbors," he wrote on Twitter.

Arab street

Analysts point out that Saudi Arabia's pivotal role in reviving the peace process has been called into question by the shocking murder of the Saudi Arabian consulate of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

However, in another notable move, Mr. Netanyahu's comments on Friday showed tacit support for the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, accused of having a role in Khashoggi's death – something the kingdom denies.

  • Khashoggi affair: Will the Middle East policy be reshaped?

He said that the killing of Mr. Khashoggi was "terrible" but should not cause uproar in Saudi Arabia, "because the bigger problem is Iran."

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Israel said that the stability of Saudi Arabia must be maintained after the assassination of Jamaal Khashoggi

Bahrain welcomed this "clear position" from Israel, just as it had previously supported Oman to receive the Israeli leader.

All these signs of a regional shift are popular with ordinary Israelis, and even Netanyahu's political rivals have praised his progress in the Gulf.

However, the Arab public – for whom the Palestinian question remains very emotional – will be much harder to win without a peace agreement.

Therefore, Arab states are unlikely to fully accept Israel. Instead, we should expect more unimaginable invitations, recognition gestures, and warm handshakes.


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