Israel, Oman heads of state meet for 1st time in 22 years

Benjamin Netanyahu has returned from a visit to the Gulf state of Oman, where he joined the country's leader in the first meeting of its kind in more than 20 years, the Israeli prime minister's office said Friday.

Rare meeting comes just days days after Palestinian leader Abbas visited Oman

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman. Netanyahu's office said he had been invited after lengthy communications. (Israel GPO via Reuters)

Benjamin Netanyahu has returned from a visit to the Gulf state of Oman, where he joined the country's leader in the first meeting of its kind in more than 20 years, the Israeli prime minister's office said Friday.

The office said in a statement that Netanyahu had been invited by Sultan Qaboos bin Said after lengthy communications.

Israel and Oman do not have diplomatic relations. The meeting was the first between leaders of the two countries since 1996, when Shimon Peres led Israel, with former Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin making a similar surprise visit to Oman two years earlier.

The sultanate has long had a quiet role in fostering negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, and has openly called for the need for a Palestinian state while acknowledging a need for an Israeli state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also paid a three-day visit to Oman earlier this week.

Arab states, including Oman, remain publicly committed to calls for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Oman has joined a chorus of Arab countries that have strongly condemned Israel's killing of Palestinians in Gaza protests that erupted in May and continued Friday.

Although historic, the meeting did not immediately signal a breakthrough in peace efforts because Oman does not have the clout or leverage of nations like Saudi Arabia to strongly advocate for, or push the two sides closer to the negotiating table.

Netanyahu and his wife were joined on the trip by the head of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, his Foreign Ministry director and other defence officials.

Ongoing relations with Arab nations

Netanyahu has repeatedly stated in recent years that Israel has developed good relations with several Arab states, despite a lack of official ties. Israel is only officially recognized by two Arab states — Egypt and Jordan.

Alarm over Shia-led Iran's extensive reach in the region in places like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon has sparked behind-the-scenes diplomacy between some Arab states and Israel.

The two leaders issued a joint statement saying the two sides "discussed ways to advance the Middle East peace process and discussed a number of issues of mutual interest to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East."

The Israeli leader's wife, Sara, was part of the delegation visiting the sultan. (Israel GPO via Reuters)

Oman, which sits on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to its north and Iran to its east, has a long record of being a quiet broker in the region, opting to stay on the sidelines of the rivalry between the two regional powerhouses. Although it is a member of the Saudi-led, six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, it did not join in the kingdom in its boycott of Qatar or the war in Yemen.

Sultan Qaboos has managed to steer his country through choppy regional politics with a policy of non-interference, helping broker the release of Western hostages in Yemen and providing a back door for communications between Washington and Tehran under U.S. President Barack Obama's administration.

In February, Oman's foreign minister made a rare visit by an Arab official to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound and to the West Bank.

The following month, Omani officials joined their Arab counterparts from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain at the White House for a meeting with Israeli national security officials to discuss the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu's visit comes at a time when Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects appear dim. The last attempt at U.S.-mediated negotiations floundered in April 2014 and the Trump administration's efforts to reach the "Deal of the Century" have thus far proven fruitless.

In the past year, the White House under Donald Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and opened an embassy there in May. It cut funding for UN organization that provides aid to Palestinian refugees and shuttered the Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington. All have further alienated the Palestinians.