Bridging the Gulf in the Middle East

As Israel celebrates diplomatic success in the Gulf, where does this leave the Palestinians?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman. (photo credit: GPO/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman.
(photo credit: GPO/REUTERS)
As the prospect of an imminent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks as bleak as ever, there have at least been some positive developments in the relationship between Israel and members of the Arab world in recent weeks, particularly with the states along the Persian Gulf.
On Friday, October 26, it emerged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made an historic official state visit to Oman, accompanied by his wife Sara and a delegation of government and security officials that included the director of Mossad Yossi Cohen and Foreign Ministry Director-General Yuval Rotem. Netanyahu was received by the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said, and the two leaders discussed “ways to advance the peace process in the Middle East” and other issues of “joint interest.”
This was the first visit to Oman by an Israeli prime minister since Shimon Peres opened trade offices there in 1996 and the recent visit was hailed by the Prime Minister’s Office as “a significant step in implementing the policy outlined by Prime Minister Netanyahu on deepening relations with the states of the region while leveraging Israel’s advantages in security, technology and economic matters.”
The following week, Israel’s Transport and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz also departed for Oman on an official state visit, this time to take part in an international transportation conference and to pitch his proposal for a railway project that would link the Gulf and the Mediterranean via Israel. The Tracks for Regional Peace initiative, Katz said, would “create an additional trade route in the region, which is shorter, faster and cheaper, and will contribute to the economies of Jordan, the Palestinians, who will also be connected to the initiative, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – and in the future Iraq as well.” It seems that Israel’s Transport and Intel Minister is no stranger to offering unconventional transportation options to his country’s Arab neighbors, having previously announced his intention to build a seaport off the coast of Gaza that would “provide Gaza with an economic and humanitarian gateway to the world without endangering Israeli security.”
However outlandish Katz’s Tracks for Regional Peace initiative may seem, it clearly demonstrates Israel’s desire to “bridge the Gulf” and fashion greater co-operation with the Arab Middle East.
But it is not only in Oman where Israel has been “bridging the Gulf” of late. Miri Regev, Israel’s Culture and Sports Munster, recently embarked on a trip to the United Arab Emirates to watch Israel perform at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam of judo, a year after the Israeli team was subject to appalling (but not altogether surprising) bigotry at the same tournament. Whenever an Israeli athlete won a medal at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam last year, the organizers refused to allow “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, to be played at the podium, or for the Israeli flag to fly above; instead, the anthem of the International Judo Federation (IJF) was played and the Federation’s flag was raised over the podium in Israel’s place. For a short time, the Israeli flag didn’t even appear in the official standings on the IJF website, and was again substituted for the IJF flag.
But it was not only the tournament officials who exhibited their prejudice against the Jewish State. Mirroring scenes from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics the previous summer, several competitors also refused to shake the hand of their Israeli counterparts after matches, most notably Rashad Almashjar of the United Arab Emirates after his defeat to Israeli judoka Tohar Butbul. However, what a difference 12 months can make. This year in Abu Dhabi, Israeli judokas could finally celebrate their achievements by standing under an Israeli flag on the podium and listening to “Hatikvah” being played, under the eyes of their Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who was in tears as she presented a gold medal to Sagi Muki.
There is undoubtedly a wind of change blowing across the Middle East, as Israeli government officials celebrate positive experiences in the United Emirates and Oman, two countries with whom Israel does not even have formal diplomatic relations. But there are some people whom you just cannot please. In an unprecedented move that provoked the ire of Palestinians, Jerusalem’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern approved the burial of Ala’a Qarash, a Muslim man, in a Jewish cemetery after it is alleged that he sold land to Jews, which prompted Muslim cemeteries to refuse to bury him. While the Palestinian hierarchy cannot disinherit an ancient prejudice, their Arab neighbors who were formerly anti-Israel are now seeking closer ties with the Jewish State, and this can only be good for the security of the wider Middle East.
The writer is a CAMERA fellow and a co-president of the Friends of Israel Society at University College London.