Thu, Nov 08, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Israel’s outreach to Gulf Arab states is now in full public view

By Aya Batrawy and Josef Federman AP, DUBAI

It was a scene unthinkable just weeks ago: an Israeli Cabinet minister, tears of joy filling her eyes, proudly singing her country’s national anthem at a sports event in the heart of the Arab world.

The spectacle of Israeli Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev singing HaTikva, which describes the Jewish yearning for a homeland in Zion, was just one in a series of taboo-busting public appearances by Israeli officials in Gulf Arab states that have thrust the once-secret back channels of outreach into public view.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for years boasted about warming ties with key Arab states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, but those ties — still largely unpopular among the Arab public — were rarely visible.

That changed on Oct. 26, when Netanyahu made an unannounced visit to Oman, where he met longtime ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

It marked the first visit by an Israeli leader in more than 20 years to the tiny Gulf state, a US ally that has in the past facilitated negotiations between the US and Iran.

“These were important talks, both for the state of Israel and very important talks for Israel’s security,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Oct. 28. “There will be more.”

As he spoke, Regev was in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with an Israeli delegation at a judo tournament — the scene of her happy tears after Israeli judoka Sagi Muki won the gold medal — and Netanyahu’s communications minister was headed to the UAE for a security conference.

Israeli Minister of Transportation and Intelligence Yisrael Katz is in Oman last week for a conference where he plans to present his plan for a rail link between Gulf Arab nations and Israel.

The driving force in these visits seems to be a shared concern over Iran.

Israel and many of the Gulf Arab states consider Iran a destabilizing force, meddling in conflicts and supporting rivals across the region. Oman, which borders Saudi Arabia and lies at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, has often played the role of regional mediator.

It also provides an opportunity for these Arab nations to curry favor in Washington.

US President Donald Trump has promised to present a plan for the “Deal of the Century” for Middle East peace, and Saudi Arabia’s dependability as an influential conduit has been thrown into question amid the fallout from the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

Regev’s emotional appearance at the gold medal ceremony in Abu Dhabi was unprecedented and especially remarkable, given her political leanings.

At home, she is an outspoken nationalist popular with hard-liners.

In Abu Dhabi, Regev also toured the grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Wearing a loosely wrapped headscarf and the traditional floor-length gown known as an abaya, she was warmly welcomed by local officials.

While the visits by Netanyahu and his Likud party ministers are a huge public relations boost for him domestically, they do not immediately signal an Arab embrace of Israel.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains an emotional issue with the Arab public, and relations will likely remain limited without a peace agreement.

Israeli forces have killed more than 160 Palestinians during months of Hamas-led protests in the Gaza Strip against an Israeli blockade and a deepening humanitarian crisis. The peace process has been frozen for years and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut ties with Washington after the White House recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year and moved its embassy to the city.

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