MUSCAT, Nov 6 – Israel’s leaders often refer to their country being in a “tough neighbourhood” but recently there have been some extraordinary signs of friendliness with parts of the Arab world.
Late last month, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife met the Sultan of Oman on a surprise, eight-hour visit – the first of its kind in over two decades.
There was a lavish dinner, traditional Omani music and what Mr Netanyahu told his Cabinet were “very important talks”, promising more trips would follow.
Sure enough, by the time he was speaking, Israel’s Sports and Culture Minister, Miri Regev, was at an international judo contest in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
She wept with joy when an Israeli athlete took a gold medal and the Israeli national anthem was played – something unprecedented on the Arabian Peninsula.
Later, another Israeli official talked about “peace and security”, at an event in the Arab emirate of Dubai. Now, the transportation minister is in the Omani capital, Muscat, proposing a railway between Israel and Arab countries.
All this despite the fact that Israel has no official diplomatic relations with Oman or the UAE.
Like much of the Arab world, they have historically shunned the state which was created in 1948, leading to the first in a series of Arab-Israeli wars.
“These visits are extremely important because they’re really melting the ice,” says former Israeli diplomat, Dore Gold, who sees that “symbolism is the key element”.
“Gulf Arabs and Israeli officials have had meetings for years – they know each other – but there was a reluctance to take this another step,” he goes on. “Now that is changing.”
The main reason is a shared concern over Iran. Israel, like many Gulf Arab countries, worries about Iran’s ambitions and sees it as a destabilising force in the Middle East.
Tehran has been directly involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and supports rebels fighting in Yemen and militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The Trump administration – which also seeks to contain Iran – strongly supports closer ties between US allies in the Gulf and Israel.
However, Palestinians are alarmed by the new alliances, developing as President Trump promises to present his “Deal of the Century” plan to end their conflict with Israel.
They fear his administration is looking to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others to pressure them into accepting a peace agreement that does not meet their long-standing demands.
“This kind of attempt to normalise Israel within the region, without Israel normalising its relationship with Palestine and remaining as an occupying power, is counterproductive and dangerous,” says Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) official.