Palestine Pulse

Will Oman broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?

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Article Summary
The Sultanate of Oman has been making the headlines by receiving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, raising speculation about an Omani mediation to advance the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Ramallah with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi on Oct. 31. Alawi handed Abbas a message from Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said on the peace process in the region.

Palestinian-Israeli relations remain in a political stalemate. In April 2014, Palestinian feuding factions Fatah and Hamas had reached a reconciliation deal and formed a unity government. Israel imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority (PA) freezing tax revenues, accusing Abbas of striking a deal with a terrorist entity — Hamas — and halting peace talks with any Palestinian government including Hamas. Israel, however, maintained security coordination with the PA.

This led to the collapse of US-brokered Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. Since then, Palestinians and Israelis have not sat at the negotiating table.

However, recently, Palestinians and Israelis made marked political moves toward Oman. In October, both sides visited the sultanate and Omani envoys landed in the Palestinian territories.

On Oct. 28, Abbas hosted Qaboos’ envoy Salim bin Habib al-Amiri in Ramallah, who stressed strong bilateral ties. Two days earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Qaboos in Oman to discuss the peace process. Joining Netanyahu were Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and others.

An Israeli media delegation also visited Muscat on Oct. 31, reportedly to explore the opinion of Omani citizens on their country’s relationship with Israel.

Abbas had visited Oman Oct. 22, to discuss with Qaboos cooperation in various fields in order to serve the best interests of the two peoples. Abbas was accompanied by Secretary of Fatah Central Committee Jibril Rajoub and Maj. Gen. Majid Faraj, the head of the General Intelligence Service.

On Sept. 13, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi received Rajoub, who conveyed a verbal message from Abbas on the Palestinian issue.

Al-Monitor talked to Awad bin Said Ba Quwair, former head of the Omani Journalists Association who is close to decision-making circles in the sultanate. He said that the current political movement toward the sultanate by Palestinians and Israelis comes at their request. “They both need a transparent intermediary offering them ideas for returning to the negotiating table,” he said. “So far, the sultanate has no integrated plan with the exception of initial ideas and preliminary proposals. We realize that the Palestinian cause is thorny and difficult but with the help of the United States our efforts can break the existing stalemate.”

Despite the lack of accurate figures on Oman's financial aid to the Palestinians, their relations are growing. This is shown by the mutual visits by senior officials. In recent years, several agreements have been signed between the two countries in the fields of culture, information, economy, agriculture and fisheries. In addition, joint committees have been formed for political consultation and economic cooperation.

Israel and the PA are aware that Oman has managed to organize negotiations on major files such as Iran's nuclear deal, the Yemen war and the Gulf crisis. This makes it a neutral intermediary, though it operates in secret and out of the limelight. Hosting Abbas and then Netanyahu proves the success of Oman’s soft diplomacy.

Ghassan Khatib, the former Palestinian planning minister in Ramallah, told Al-Monitor, “I do not think Oman's efforts will succeed in bridging the huge divergence between Palestinians and Israelis. Israel does not feel the need to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to consolidate its Arab relations.”

He added, “The United States probably resorted to Oman in light of Muscat’s close relations with Ramallah and Tel Aviv. But the prospects for the success of the Omani mediation remain meager. The PA knows it. Yet it is difficult for the PA to reject the efforts of the sultanate. The PA is dealing with Oman’s proposals without really having much faith in them.”

Netanyahu’s visit to Oman on Oct. 26 triggered the fears of the various Palestinian factions. Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab told Al-Mayadeen on the same day that Netanyahu's visit to the sultanate could open a new channel of negotiations with Israel. In turn, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine described the visit in a press statement as an advanced stage of normalization in tandem with the efforts of the United States to pass its "deal of the century."

Head of Fatah's Information Department Munir al-Jaghoub said in a press statement that the visit aims to undermine the Arab peace initiative based on “the land for peace” formula. On Oct. 27, he denied these statements.

The London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported Oct. 29 that Abbas instructed Palestinian officials and spokespersons to refrain from insulting Oman, by ordering them not to comment on Netanyahu's visit to the sultanate. The newspaper noted that this shows that Abbas was informed in advance of Oman’s movement.

Hamas was angered by Netanyahu’s visit to Oman. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, “It is terribly wrong to receive Israelis on Arab premises. This cannot be justified as a step aimed to achieve the best interest of the Palestinians. This must not be repeated. Israel is the enemy.”

He went on lashing out at the PA for not denouncing Netanyahu's visit to Oman. “This confirms that the PA is now sponsoring normalization in the region. The PA is calling on Arab parties to exert mediation efforts with Israel for resuming negotiations. This refutes its allegation of severing ties with Israel.”

Hani Albasoos, a professor of political sciences at Sultan Qaboos University, told Al-Monitor, “Both Palestine and Israel expressed their desire to hold meetings in Oman. This is why they were invited to Muscat.”

He added, “It seems that the United States has a role in this in light of the strong relationship between Muscat and Washington. Oman is also briefing Egypt and Jordan on the outcome of its mediation efforts. This is necessary because of their proximity to Palestine and in order to expand consultations.”

So far the recent movements to and from Oman are in favor of two parties out of three. Oman has emerged as a mediator with the ability to host the Palestinians and Israelis. It could be planning to hold a summit between Abbas and Netanyahu, which could be a golden opportunity for the sultanate to rise as a political mediator, while all other regional countries are preoccupied with their internal issues.

Israel has managed to be hosted in yet another Arab capital despite the halt of negotiations with the Palestinians. This proves that Israel can communicate with the Arabs by bypassing the peace process. As for the Palestinians, they have yet to reap the gains contemplated from this Omani movement.

Adnan Abu Amer heads the Political Science and Media Department of Umma University Open Education in Gaza, where he lectures on the history of the Palestinian cause, national security and Israel studies. He holds a doctorate in political history from Damascus University and has published a number of books on the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also works as a researcher and translator for a number of Arab and Western research centers and writes regularly for a number of Arab newspapers and magazines.

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