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With Netanyahu visit, Sultan Qaboos building Oman's 'regional role'

Israeli leader's surprise visit to Oman more about Gulf country's role in region than peace process with Palestinians, diplomat says
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Sultan Qaboos in Muscat, capital of Oman, this week (Handout)

RAMALLAH, Palestine - Sultan Qaboos bin Said's surprise meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week was more about Oman's desire to play a role in the region than reaching a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, according to a diplomatic source.

Sultan Qaboos hosted Netanyahu in Muscat only days after he met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Still, while Palestinian sources said the sultan urged both leaders to revive the stalled peace process, a Western diplomatic source indicated that Netanyahu's visit - and the way it was quietly announced after the prime minister had returned to Israel - was more about Oman and its role in the region than anything else.

"Oman is trying to play a regional role between the various parties and axes in the region, and it sees Israel as an important player in various regional issues," the diplomat told Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity.

"Abbas's visit was for creating the necessary balance," the diplomat said.

Palestinian sources say Sultan Qaboos told both Netanyahu and Abbas to restart peace talks, but Palestinians told him there isn't a good chance negotiations can resume with Israel's current right-wing government.

"The Palestinian side welcomes any Arab or international effort to revive the peace process, but does not think that Oman has a magic wand capable of doing what the Americans and the others could not do," the Palestinian source said.

The peace process, the source continued, has been "crushed under the bulldozers and the non-stop expansion of Israeli settlements".

'Lengthy contacts between the two countries'

In a statement, Netanyahu's office said Sultan Qaboos invited the prime minister and his wife to Oman "at the end of lengthy contacts between the two countries".

Netanyahu is the first Israeli leader to visit the sultanate since Shimon Peres in 1996.

According to the statement, Netanyahu was accompanied by several high-ranking Israeli officials on his rare visit to the Gulf state, including Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who serves as the prime minister's adviser on national security issues; head of the National Security Authority, Meir Ben-Shabat; director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Yuval Rotem; the prime minister's office chief, Yuval Horowitz, and Netanyahu's military secretary, Brigadier General Avi Plut.

"The meeting dealt with ways to advance the peace process in the Middle East, as well as issues of mutual interest related to peace and stability in the region," read a joint statement issued after the meeting.

In a tweet, Ayoob Kara, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party and Israel's minister of communications, said the visit to Oman was "proof ... of good relations between the Israeli government and Sunni countries that oppose Iranian terrorism that threatens them".

Omanis are in fact made up of members of three Muslim sects: Sunni, Shia, and Ibadi Islam, the latter of which is Oman's state religion.

Kara said Israel expects "more pleasant surprises and gestures" from Gulf countries in the coming days. He didn't specify which countries he was referring to.

Translation: The prime minister’s visit to Oman is proof of our declaration on the warming of good relations between the Israeli government and Sunni countries that oppose Iranian terrorism that threatens them. In the coming days, as US President (Donald) Trump unveils his political policy, we expect more pleasant surprises and gestures from Gulf countries toward Israel.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian president recently expressed his readiness to hold bilateral negotiations with Israel without US mediation.

Palestinian officials say Abbas is ready to return to the negotiating table if there is a good basis for talks, noting that Abbas prefers to negotiate with Israel away from US President Donald Trump and his administration, which has placed unrelenting pressure on the Palestinians.

Some observers expect contact between the Palestinian and Israeli sides to occur in secret, with the aim of quietly amending agreements already signed, including an economic agreement that has been in place for more than 23 years.

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