Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes secret Oman visit

The Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said Al Said (right) meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat, Oman.
The Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said Al Said (right) meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat, Oman.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the first visit to Oman by an Israeli premier in over 20 years, officials said on Friday (Oct 26), in an apparent sign of growing regional ties.

The surprise meeting with Oman's Sultan Qaboos late on Thursday, which was kept secret until Netanyahu's return home, comes despite the two nations having no diplomatic ties.

The trip is a major coup for Netanyahu, who has said he wants to bolster ties with the Arab world despite a stalemate on the Palestinian front.

"A special visit in Oman - we're making history!" Netanyahu wrote on Twitter, posting a video of his reception and meeting.

Netanyahu and Sultan Qaboos discussed the Middle East peace process "and other issues of shared interest", the Israeli premier's office said in a statement.

Netanyahu was accompanied by his wife Sara and his delegation included Mossad intelligence chief Yossi Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.

The visit came at the invitation of Sultan Qaboos and followed "lengthy contacts between the two countries", the Israeli statement said.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas also visited Oman this week, according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

The Israeli premier's trip formed part of "the policy outlined by Prime Minister Netanyahu on deepening relations with the states of the region", his office said.

Oman's state broadcaster showed Netanyahu and his delegation walking alongside Sultan Qaboos - who has rarely been seen in recent pictures - and other Omani officials in traditional garb.

In 1994, then-Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman, and acting prime minister Shimon Peres also made a visit in 1996 when the two countries agreed to open trade representative offices.

In October 2000, Oman closed the offices after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada.

Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan.

'OPEN THE DOOR'

Netanyahu has long been seeking alliances with other Arab states which, like Israel, face an emboldened Iran, stressing that such ties could enable peace with the Palestinians.

"We always thought that if we solved the Palestinian problem it would open up the doors to peace with the broader Arab world," Netanyahu said Thursday at the opening of an innovation centre named after Peres.

But "if you open up to the Arab world and you normalise relations with them, it will open the door for an eventual reconciliation and peace with the Palestinians," he said.

Israeli technology and innovation, Netanyahu said, was a "boon to peace" with Arab states.

"Quite a few of the neighbouring countries... are reaching out to Israel and normalising relations with Israel which is a step towards peace because of innovation," he said.

"They want it for water, they want it for health, they want it for IT, they want it for solar energy, they want it for everything."