In the spirit of this week’s local elections – and with the scent of general elections already in the air – the various city council campaigns raised the question of what might Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and the Likud’s ads look like in only a few months.
We can imagine a photo of Netanyahu alongside President Trump, Sara and Melania, then media reports of isolation from the international community. Then perhaps a series of images from the past week: Netanyahu with the sultan of Oman, pointing at a map of Saudi Arabia; Netanyahu with Emmanuel Macron with whom he’s meeting next month; Netanyahu with Theresa May. Perhaps Culture Minister Miri Regev could find her way into the video with a picture of her crying over Israel’s Judo victory in Abu Dhabi, as could Israel Katz and his plan of a train that will reach Saudi Arabia to be presented in Oman next week – that is, if Katz isn’t too big of a threat for the PM. Otherwise he might find himself on the cutting room floor.
The message will be clear: What isolation? Israel is thriving. The underlying message is slightly more complex: We beat the system. The media, the left-wing and the world thought the only way to get an open line with the Arab world is to evacuate settlers. Boy, did we prove them wrong. Without giving up anything, without even compromising, without so much as a negotiation, we made it all the way to Oman. Only the Likud could pull that off.
There is one more, deeper message here: The only thing Arabs understand is power. They see how strong Netanyahu is and they want to meet him. No price tag, no surrender. In a way, that’s true. The Middle East has changed, and Israel is a force to be reckoned with. Netanyahu has every right to take credit. His visit to Oman was well photographed, public and most important: It was surprising.
I say surprising because Oman usually prefers keeping its relationship with Israel silent. This time they went all the way, hosting the PM, reporting it on local media, and even including a statement from Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s foreign affairs minister, encouraging the relations.
Netanyahu trip was almost cinematically secret. He did it quietly, landed at night, and he took his wife along in a move that seems strange at best and at worst, as a hint of surrendering to family pressure at the cost of a diplomatic faux pas. It also hints at a deep misunderstanding of the Arab culture’s conservative codes.
Either way, Oman handled it well. The only question is what made them step out of the darkness as they did. The answer is complicated. It involves a financial crisis; tensions with Saudi Arabia; an attempt to bring the White House just a little bit closer after being seen as those who brought Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad together.
For Israel, this spells opportunity. The late Meir Dagan, once the head of the Mossad, had said that Israel is the mistress of the Middle East – everyone is interested, but only under the table. Israel’s challenge is to go from the secret mistress to the legitimate lover, maybe even common-law partner.
Oman helps it take a step in that direction, and not for the first time. This meeting with PM Netanyahu is making up for two decades’ worth of turbulence. Israel’s connection with Oman began at the end of the 1970s, when the Mossad helped the sultan suppress a rebellion. The connection to the Mossad went on uninterrupted since then. The first time it went public was after the Oslo Accords, when PM Rabin visited Oman and Qatar. After Rabin was assassinated, the Omanis came to his funeral in Jerusalem.
ONE YEAR LATER, Shimon Peres, then PM, visited the sultanate openly. I was there with him, as a young reporter. The relationship remains relatively stable until 2000 and the Second Intifada. Pushed by Iranian-Palestinian pressure, Oman sends away the Israeli delegate. They give him a week to pack up and get out. Israel doesn’t make a big deal out of it, maintaining a good relationship with Oman, above and below the table. It’s not the first time Netanyahu meets the Omani foreign minister, but this time there’s a photograph to prove it.
The big question is, what does Oman want? What is it willing to give for it? This visit seems to signal that Oman is not a Tehrani puppet; that it does want a new and better relationship with Washington; and mostly, that it wants to be a player in Middle East politics. Add the Israeli visit to the close relationship to the Egyptian president; the visit to Jordan and the indirect contact with Saudi Arabia; and the conclusion is that a window of opportunity has opened.
This is a window to a potential Mideast coalition which could stop, or at least slow, the Islamic extremists, the Iranian heat and the nuclear race. The partners could very well make true the Israeli dream of regional peace. It sounds like pure fantasy but the chance does exist. We may never be brothers – Oman is not likely to become a popular destination – but we could talk about regional peace, or at least a connection that’s more open, clearer and tighter.
There’s only one problem: In order to keep and develop this relationship, Israel is expected to make progress with the Palestinians. It might not be the first priority but it is on the list. They want to see Israeli initiatives, offers and a return to negotiations, because the public is asking for it and because there’s a limit to the extent of inner-Arab betrayal they can get away with.
Oman makes this point clear both in action and in words. Recently a key Arabic leader passed a message to Netanyahu via an international official. That message was: The window of opportunity is open now, but only for a short while; it’s time to act. Saudi Arabia’s lowly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi proved just how fragile it is to be a big player and an ally to the West in this region with its unique rules.
Perhaps this open window is all about Trump’s upcoming peace plan. That’s an event Netanyahu had better prepare for. If his visit to Oman was more than just an election photo op, he has to take the lead and present his own move; to step out of the comfort zone of reactions and of merely managing the existing situation. He has to present a thorough vision on how to behave in the Middle East; on where Israel wants to be in a decade. Of all people, it is Netanyahu – the man who presents himself as the best candidate to lead the country for many years to come – who has to have a solid vision. If his own political base doesn’t demand that from him, perhaps his new friends from the peninsula will.
The writer is chief political analyst and anchor on Keshet Channel 13.
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