Did the Mossad really positively impact ties between Israel and Oman?

Mossad head Yossi Cohen made a rare public appearance and revealed that he and his agency had been behind most of the recent progress Israel has had with its moderate Sunni Arab neighbors.

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July 3, 2019 23:53
3 minute read.
Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Something shocking happened on Monday.

Mossad head Yossi Cohen made a rare public appearance and revealed that he and his agency had been behind most of the recent progress Israel has had with its moderate Sunni Arab neighbors.

This has been an open secret for some time, but it was the first time that the Mossad chief himself was confirming it.
But then Cohen got more specific.

He said that the Mossad had clandestinely set the stage for “a renewal of ties with Oman and the establishment of Foreign Ministry representation” there.

This was true breaking news.

It took some time for news outlets to sort out what they thought he had said out of several other strong lines he emphasized, but eventually reports started rolling out that Cohen was taking credit for normalizing relations with Oman.

It did not take long for Oman to angrily contradict these reports, seemingly also contradicting Cohen.

Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Foreign Ministry were willing to help to clear up the mess.

So what does all of this mean? What is the latest status in Israel-Oman relations? Was Cohen telling the truth, or was Oman?
And even if Cohen was telling the truth, did his public revelation potentially undermine progress?

A careful reading of Oman’s denial and a proper reading of Cohen’s statement may lift away many of the claimed contradictions.

Oman did not deny a renewal of some kind of ties with Israel, nor did it deny allowing some kind of Israeli Foreign Ministry presence. It merely denied normalization, and said that full normalization was contingent on achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Read carefully, Cohen also did not say normalization, though some mistranslated his statement in that direction.

His use of the phrase “renewal of ties” was far more amorphous. He did not say anything about a physical office or embassy. Rather, he used a vague phrase of their being diplomatic representation.

This could mean one junior diplomat working out of his apartment or a corner of another country’s embassy, passing messages between the countries but otherwise keeping his head down.

Despite the brief public tussle, there is no reason to think that whatever low-level new Israeli Foreign Ministry presence in Oman that Cohen was describing will not go forward.

Oman and the other Sunni moderate countries may not fully normalize relations with Israel absent a peace deal with the Palestinians, but they also are no longer waiting for the Palestinians in order to benefit from Israeli assistance with competing with Iran, combating terror, and hi-tech advancement.

Former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit has told The Jerusalem Post about his secret visits to both Middle Eastern Arab countries and even to Muslim Indonesia, long before deeper and more public connections were ever announced. Secret messages between the Mossad and Jordan went back decades before the countries achieved peace.
So Oman-Israel relations will probably continue to progress.

But Cohen’s announcement was a risky one.

Maybe the best question would be why he would take such a risk?

Some had speculated long before this week’s speech by Cohen that he will look to go into politics within the Likud when he finishes at the Mossad in the next two or so years.

From that perspective, this was a chance for him to shine and take some credit.

But that seems too blatant for Cohen, who has shown a real instinct for subtlety and whose rare public appearances and statements seem designed to achieve specific goals.

This has been very clear with his statements about Iran, about recruiting more women into the Mossad, and about the Mossad’s new venture capital investments in customized spy technologies.

It is more likely that Cohen coordinated his statement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who endorsed the Oman mention to put pressure on the Palestinians.

When the director of the Mossad tells you publicly that the train is leaving the station, you know he means it.

Cohen also clearly wants to try to advance regional peace, which he said may be closer to happening now than at any other time in Israel’s history. And he backed Netanyahu’s public April 2018 revelation of the Mossad’s operation to grab Iran’s secret nuclear files, though most former Mossad chiefs were incensed that the operation was made public.

So he is a believer in using intelligence publicly to achieve national aims.

It remains to be seen whether his public gambit on Monday will achieve something to make it worth the potential risk of embarrassing Oman.


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