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MIDEAST MIRROR 29.10.18, SECTION A (ISRAEL)

 

The Iran connection

 

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud 'Abbas on Sunday again vowed to oppose any peace proposal by President Trump as PLO officials met to consider their next moves. Speaking at the opening of a meeting of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's central council, 'Abbas said Palestinians were facing perhaps the "most dangerous stage" in their history, highlighting a series of U.S. measures including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. 'Abbas has boycotted the White House since that December decision. The U.S. is still expected to release a peace plan in the coming months. 'Abbas compared the expected Trump proposal to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which saw the British government commit to the creation of a state for Jews in historic Palestine. "If the Balfour Declaration passed, this deal will not pass," he pledged. The Palestinian leader accused his Hamas rivals of serving U.S. interests by refusing to relinquish control of the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, three people killed in an IDF strike in Gaza on Sunday were young teens, the Hamas-run health ministry said. The IDF said it carried out an airstrike targeting three Palestinians who were attempting to damage the fence surrounding the Strip. The army added that the suspects were "apparently in the process of planting an explosive device" at the Southern part of the coastal enclave. According to the IDF, some 16,000 Palestinians gathered at five locations along the border on Friday, burning tires and throwing rocks and firebombs at Israeli troops, who responded with tear gas and occasional live fire. Later, 34 rockets were fired at Israel overnight and into Saturday morning, 13 of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Two of the rockets fell in Gaza and the rest were said to have landed in open areas. In response to the rocket fire, Israeli aircraft attacked 95 Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza.

Israeli security officials believe that the fighting on Friday and Saturday, which was led by the Islamic Jihad under orders from Iran, is tied to a power struggle between Islamic Jihad and Hamas over credit for the protests along the border fence as well as for gains from an anticipated agreement with Israel. Iranian involvement is connected to the fight over leadership of the weekly protests. Iran wants Gaza's residents to see it as the country that stood by them in recent months and is responsible for the improvement in their situation. Tehran wishes to prevent Egypt, Qatar, and the UN – who have been mediating between Israel and Hamas – from receiving any credit. To this end, Iran is paying about $100 million a year to organizations in Gaza and families of Palestinians killed and wounded in the protests.

Israeli residents from the Southern border communities blocked the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza Monday morning. The group, protesting the continuous rocket fire and security situation in the South, were joined by activists from the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu, and managed to block dozens of trucks carrying supplies from entering the coastal enclave. 

President 'Abbas received a special emissary Sunday in Ramallah from Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said, a few days after Prime Minister Netanyahu made a surprise visit to Oman. A report by the official Palestinian news agency said that the Omani official gave 'Abbas a personal letter from Qaboos. The sultan thanked 'Abbas for his visit to Oman last week and stressed the importance of ties between Oman and the PA. Ramallah took pains not to criticize Netanyahu's visit to Oman, but the Palestinian political world did not like the visit and the timing. A Palestinian official close to 'Abbas told Haaretz that it cannot be ruled out that the Omani emissary brought calming messages, mainly about the normalization of ties with Israel. The PA expects all Arab countries to commit to the formula set in the Arab peace plan, whereby normalization with Israel would occur only in exchange for a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. In a sign of continued warming ties with the Arab world, Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz will head to Oman to push for a regional rail line that will link Haifa with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Katz is expected to present the plan when he addresses a regional transportation conference, called the IRU World Congress, which will convene is Muscat from November 6th to 8th. According to his office, "This is the first time an Israeli Minister has been formally invited to participate in an international conference in Oman."

American military officials are concerned over Israel's campaign against Iran in Syria, which has won the encouragement of the White House, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday. "It is a growing concern for us," a senior military official told the Journal. The report says that U.S. military officials fear that if Iran would believe the United States is behind some of the strikes in Syria, or that the United States is feeding Israel intelligence for the strikes, it could prompt attacks by Iran-backed militias on American troops in the region. The officials expressed concern particularly about more than 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.

Elsewhere, the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday began with a minute of silence to honor the 11 Jewish worshipers killed in an anti-Semitic shooting attack a day earlier at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. "It is hard to overstate the horror of a murder of Jews gathered in a synagogue on Shabbat, who were murdered just because they were Jews," Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting. Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau on Sunday condemned the killing but could not bring himself to call the house of worship a synagogue, instead labeling it "a place of clear Jewish character." The ultra-Orthodox Lau is an avowed foe of the more liberal streams of Judaism and was last year, along with Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, instrumental in pushing the government to backtrack on the deal for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. "I will say one simple thing: Any murder of a Jew in any corner of the world, because they are Jewish, is unforgivable, it's a crime that cannot, under any circumstances, be ignored," Lau told Makor Rishon. Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs drew a parallel on Sunday evening between the gunman in Pittsburgh and Hamas militants who target Israel with rockets. Addressing a memorial vigil sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Naftali Bennett said: "From Sderot to Pittsburgh, the hand that fires missiles is the same hand that shoots worshippers. We will fight against the hatred of Jews, and anti-Semitism wherever it raises its head. And we will prevail

Finally, Sagi Muki of Israel won a gold medal on Sunday at the International Judo Federation's Grand Slam competition in Abu Dhabi. For the first time, the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikva" was played in Abu Dhabi as the Israeli judoka received the medal. Muki received the medal in the presence of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who attended the competition despite the fact that Israel has no diplomatic relations with the UAE. In 2017, Israeli judoka Tal Flicker won gold medal at the Grand Slam. No Israeli flag was flown at the podium in 2017, after the hosts forbade any representation of the Israeli team's nationality, something that they claimed was done for their own safety. Israelis competed under similar conditions during the same event held in 2015 in Abu Dhabi.

 

 

KOCHAVI NEEDS EYES IN THE BACK OF HIS HEAD: Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth states that the new chief of staff Aviv Kochavi knows how to deal with external enemies – but the government will use him as a scapegoat, and social network bullies will vilify him as a soft leftist. His problem is the crooks from within.

"There are more convenient roles in the civil service, but aside from the prime minister, there is no role more responsible and demanding than that of the chief of staff. Millions of Israelis look up to him: in their eyes he embodies security, deterrence, and, just as importantly, the expectation to see the fighters, their kin, return home safely.

Four generals competed for the job. All four are good. The most senior of them was Aviv Kochavi. Not only because of the many roles that he has filled in the IDF, but because of the way he succeeded in each of them. Lieberman and Netanyahu chose correctly. The grating sounds that accompanied the announcement of the decision came from the ego games rife at the top of the government, but they do not overshadow the choice itself. They even have a silver lining: Kochavi will begin his tenure as the 22nd chief of staff not owing his appointment to anyone. Independence is power. It releases the chief of staff from personal and political constraints. Gadi Eizenkot solidified his position as one of the most powerful and esteemed chiefs of staff in the history of the IDF because he stood, and is still standing, on his own two feet. Kochavi enjoys similar opening circumstances.

I have been following Kochavi's work since the early 1990s, when he commanded the 101st Paratroopers Regiment, at the edge of the Eastern sector in Lebanon. Regardless of him, the regiment was the station I made sure to reach every time I went to Lebanon. I found a brave, intelligent, sober combat commander, who saw far beyond his battalion's sector. I met him again as commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, in the fight against terror in the West Bank, before and during Operation Defensive Shield. He led the breach of walls from house to house, the method that the IDF used to regain control of the Balata refugee camp. Under his command the Nablus Casbah was reoccupied.

There are commanders in the army who advance in the ranks but remain forever at the level of Regiment or Brigade commander. Raful Eitan was like that. Kochavi, on the other hand, grew in stature with every role he filled. That was the case in Military Intelligence, as in the Northern Command and as deputy chief of staff.

The chief of staff's job is to prepare the army for war. His additional job is to prevent war. In the present reality, in which Israel has nothing to gain from a head-on collision with its enemies, this aspect is no less important.

Eizenkot is leaving Kochavi with an army that is in good shape and good spirits, well equipped, rich in budgets. Military Intelligence estimates that the likelihood of war initiated by Iran or its proxies is low. There is, however, a pretty high likelihood of war developing in the North against Hezbollah in Lebanon and the pro-Iranian militias in Syria, and in Gaza as well, with Hamas. Iran has not given up on turning Syria into a launch pad for its campaign against Israel. It has not given up on its nuclear ambitions either. Gaza is far from calming down. Something will happen on that front even before Kochavi begins his tenure, on December 31.

The government that Kochavi will work under is different from previous ones. The belligerent rhetoric of its ministers is breaking records – including the rhetoric of the prime minister and the defense minister. The military moves that the political echelon actually approves, however, are much more cautious, much more sober. Gaza is a prime example: The gap between rhetoric and action requires explanation, and the explanation the politicians have found is the IDF – the chief of staff is to blame. Because of him Gaza is hungry. Because of him Gaza is boiling; that is why it is spilling over on the fence. This false view will intensify in the coming months, because of elections. Government ministers will need scapegoats to cover up their failures and the IDF is one of them. Every cynical lie will be inflated and rolled through the social networks and the radio and television talk shows. This ugly wave is already gnawing at the margins of the IDF today. The chief of staff and the generals are presented again and again as closet leftists. The IDF Spokesperson's statements are presented as Fake News. The soldiers on the ground read the talkbacks, and do not know who to believe.

Last week, a terrorist stabbed an IDF soldier in Hebron. The soldiers responded as required: They shot the stabber. The soldier was lightly wounded, and the terrorist was killed. One of the internet bullies published some information he had ostensibly heard from a source in the military attorney's office that the chief of staff and military attorney general had ordered that the soldier be indicted 'like Eleor Azaria'. The network thug has tens of thousands of followers; within minutes he received hundreds of Likes.

And so on and so forth. Kochavi will discover, as Eizenkot discovered, that he has tools to deal with the external enemy. The problem is dealing with the crooks from within."

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A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO REMOVE IRAN FROM SYRIA: Eyal Zisser in Israel Hayom argues that the new chief of staff must attack not only the parasite (Iran), but also the host, Bashar al-Assad, to whom it should be made clear that the Iranian entrenchment on his soil comes with a price.

"The decision to prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria requires resolve, daring, intelligence and operational capabilities, and contemporaneously caution not to drag the region into a general confrontation. But it seems that this campaign has exhausted itself. True, Israeli spokesmen continue to claim that Israeli freedom of action has not been harmed, and that Israel continues to act against Iranian targets on Syrian soil. Defense Minister Lieberman said last week that Israel had not stopped attacking Syria, but that the attacks had not been reported in the media. And Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated that Israel would do everything needed to prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria.

But on the ground, a gap is emerging between Israeli rhetoric and reality. Instead of reports of air force strikes we are getting reports of the Russians completing deployment of S-300 batteries throughout Syria. Moreover, Mustafa Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah chief of staff who was assassinated in 2008, is setting up the organization's infrastructures along the Israeli border in the Golan Heights, as a continuation of the actions of his brother, Jihad, who was assassinated by Israel in December 2014 near Quneitra.

The window of opportunity that opened for Israel to operate in Syria would have closed even without the downing of the Russian plane a month ago. After all, Russia wishes to ensure peace and stability in Syria, so that its investments will bear fruit. Besides, Russia does not perceive Iran as a threat, and in any case does not see its presence in Syria as a Russian problem, as Putin clearly explained just recently.

But even without the Russian indifference, it is hard to imagine that the air strikes would have been sufficient to remove the Iranians. Such attacks can perhaps prevent the Iranians taking hold of one site or another, and possibly even the deployment of combat squadrons or advanced weapons systems (which are easy to identify). But all this is a drop in the sea compared to the presence of tens of thousands of Shiite militia fighters brought by Iran to Syria, and of thousands of Iranian fighters and Hezbollah fighters. The Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria last May did not end with great success, for it marked clear red lines that Israel adheres to, including not killing Iranian soldiers, which limits the scope of action.

In light of this reality, Israel must think outside the box and recalculate its direction. A possible course of action is to revert to past policy, which was successfully implemented against the PLO in Jordan in the early 1970s: exacting a price not only from the guest (Iran) but also from the host, which in our case is Bashar al-Assad.

Israel does not 'count' Bashar, and mistakenly believes that he is a puppet in the hands of the Iranians and the Russians. Meanwhile Bashar is strengthening his position. It is possible that if he understands, along with his Russian patrons, that the Iranian presence on his land carries a price tag – he will act to restrict it. Israel missed such an opportunity by allowing Assad to return to Southern Syria for nothing, bringing with him and under his patronage the Iranians and Hezbollah as well. It is not too late; the change of course must be made cautiously and sensitively so as not to slide to a general confrontation. There is no time more apt than now, with a new tenant in the chief of staff's office."

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JIHAD TRYING TO CIRCUMVENT HAMAS: Tal Lev-Ram in Maariv claims the Cabinet will have to decide whether the time has come to change course, get creative, and authorize direct hits of Islamic Jihad activists, who are trying to drag Israel into war.

"The appointment of Ziad Nakhala as new commander of Islamic Jihad, replacing Ramadan Salah about a month ago after the latter suffered a stroke, signaled a change of direction – from the headquarters of the terrorist organization in Damascus to the commanders on the ground in Gaza. Perhaps this stems from the Iranian Quds Force's desire, as the army claims, to entangle Israel in a war in Gaza, which will make it easier for the Iranians to establish themselves militarily in Syria, or from the wish for a more hawkish line than Hamas in the struggle against Israel.

Either way, the signs indicating these developments were abundantly clear in the declarations of the leaders, in the discourse on Gaza among commanders in Damascus and in the events that took place on the ground. On October 6, Nakhala attacked Abu Mazin regarding Gaza, and sent a message to Israel: 'The Palestinian organizations have the ability to turn the communities of the Gaza envelope into a place where it is impossible to live. For our people, a martyr's death is life and surrender is death.'

This last weekend, Islamic Jihad clearly moved further than Hamas, when, under the auspices of the violent events on the fence; it began a round of escalation and explained its actions as retaliation for the five Palestinian fatalities in Gaza last Friday. The IDF is stressing the connection between the group and the Iranian Quds Force and the desire to entangle Israel in a confrontation in Gaza as the most significant factors. This change in Islamic Jihad's policy further exemplifies the dangers of continuing the violent confrontations on the fence. The more they continue the more they drag Israel closer to a war it does not want.

The IDF opted this time as well for aerial attacks against Hamas targets, in response to rocket attacks on Israel. More than 80 targets in 12 different areas were hit, damaging Hamas' infrastructure and capabilities, but without targeting terrorists and senior members of Hamas or other organizations, in order not to create further escalation in the South. Such attacks cannot be underrated. Over time they cause damage to Hamas capabilities, but at this stage they are not instigating a change in Hamas policy regarding the continuation of its struggle to lift the siege, which includes a willingness to risk a military confrontation in Gaza.

Israel attacked Hamas targets even though it was not the one who fired, so that Hamas apply pressure on Islamic Jihad and stop it from operating in the future. The effectiveness of this action is questionable; it may have short-term impact, but in the longer term it is doubtful whether this will suffice. At the moment it seems that politically and militarily Israel is at an impasse. Prime Minister Netanyahu and the defense establishment have placed preventing Iran from establishing itself in Syria as the top priority, much more important than Gaza. The restrained Israeli policy in Gaza is often explained by our senior officials as stemming from this consideration. Precisely because of this factor, the recent developments in the Gaza Strip are of great concern.

The Cabinet will have to decide whether it is time to change course and directly hit Islamic Jihad operatives, in targeted assassinations or by bombing manned HQs, in response to the continued rocket fire, or to continue with the same method of action – only harming Hamas. At this stage, it is too early to know what the decisions will be; it is too early to sum up the period yet awaiting us. At this stage, at least, Israel is behaving in exactly the same way. Anyone looking for creativity, in action or thought – should look elsewhere.

To a certain extent, there is one clear line connecting the days before Protective Edge to the past seven months in the Gaza Strip: The limited ability of Israeli intelligence to analyze the intentions of the enemy in the Strip. The latest move in the Strip illustrates just how far Hamas is willing to go walking the tightrope. It is vacillating between political achievements and a military operation."

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JIHAD FOILING LULL ON ORDERS FROM IRAN: Shimrit Meir in Yedioth Ahronoth writes that the Gaza conundrum seems unsolvable. The IDF and government cannot come up with answers and the Iranians, who hold the initiative, want to cash in on their long-standing financial investment in the military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"This last weekend, Islamic Jihad joined the endless list of obstacles to an arrangement that will prevent war in Gaza. Jihad, a veteran organization which recently elected a new leader, is determined to put itself and the Iranians on the map.

Ziad al-Nakhala, the new secretary-general of the organization, who was elected following the coma that Ramadan Salah fell into, is not a new face. In fact, he is a very old face. 65 years old, first incarcerated in an Israeli prison in 1971, and with a lifetime of military struggle against Israel behind him. From the establishment of the al-Quds Force, the military wing of Jihad, to teaching of Hebrew to Hezbollah intelligence officers. Nakhala was the Iranian's candidate for the post, and as such he did not leave his rivals much of a chance: Islamic Jihad is an Iranian organization no less than it is a Palestinian organization. Nakhala lives on the Beirut-Damascus axis, and from there the woes of Gaza's residents seem less urgent than the interests of the Revolutionary Guards. If he re-enters the list of Israeli assassination targets, it will not be the first time.

Nakhala makes sure to maintain good relations with his colleagues in the other Palestinian organizations, including Hamas, where they apparently do not like the extra independence he allowed himself when he decided to fire dozens of missiles at the communities of the Gaza envelope, just when Gaza's residents were beginning to enjoy the first significant achievement of the negotiations on an arrangement: The entry of Qatari diesel fuel that enables eight hours of electricity per day instead of four. Imagine life with four hours of electricity a day, when every action is calculated and there are large families to feed, in order to understand the depth of despair in Gaza.

Nakhala did not act on his own. The claim that Islamic Jihad is trying to disrupt the efforts to attain an arrangement on Iranian orders is not a spin. The Iranians have an interest in keeping Israel close to the fence in Gaza, and keeping its political and security leadership busy with futile rounds of violence in the Strip, instead of turning their attention and energy to the Iranian military buildup in Syria. As long as they estimate that Egyptian chances of bringing the arrangement efforts to the finishing line are slim, they allow them to go on. But when something begins to move between Israel and Hamas, they activate Islamic Jihad.

You do not have to be a strategic genius to surmise that this is not the last event. Hamas has indeed taken a break from the balloons, perhaps in exchange for the diesel fuel, but in the coming days there is still a significant potential for eruption. Abu Mazin refuses to let go, despite all the pressure on him, and wants to make more cuts in the funds he transfers to Gaza. Palestinian logic says that such decisions are more difficult to make when Gaza is in a state of combat with Israel. Hamas, for its part, is determined to continue with the marches of return, and now it has also entered into a competition against jihad for the title of the most militant organization in Gaza.

The Gaza conundrum looks complicated and unresolvable, but the government and the army have an obligation to try and find answers, instead of rolling with the punches from Friday to Friday. If we want to strive for a deal, the processes must be accelerated, and if the Egyptians are having a hard time delivering the goods, another intermediary must be found soon. If it is expected that Abu Mazin, by starving Gaza, is liable to entangle us in war, contrary to our broad interests, we must find a way to bypass Abu Mazin. On the other hand, the fact that week after week Hamas brings about 15,000 people to the fence shows that in our deterrence there is not working. Islamic Jihad paid a minimal price for a long Friday night of shooting at Israeli citizens. There is no reason to think it will not try it again.

We may be approaching the moment when the Iranians will want to cash in on their long-standing financial investment in the military arms of Hamas and Jihad. At the moment, they have the initiative."

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WHY DID NETANYAHU VISIT OMAN?: Zvi Bar'el in Haaretz surmises that if we let our imaginations run wild, Trump might now encourage the Saudi prince to promote an agreement with Israel to cleanse himself of the Khashoggi affair. Netanyahu's visit to Oman may be part of the process.

"Sultan Qaboos of Oman is a very secretive leader. He is minister of defense, finance, foreign affairs and intelligence, and heads the central bank. In Oman there are no democratic institutions and the ruler appoints the judges. Leaks are unlikely to come out of Muscat to shed light on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit. But that does not diminish the importance of the trip, which cracks the wall of no public meetings between Arab leaders and Israel's prime minister.

Netanyahu had good reason not to visit Oman and one excellent reason to do so. Oman is the close ally of Iran and Qatar. One is Israel's great enemy and one has been defined by Israel as supporting terror because of its assistance to Hamas and its alliance with Iran and Turkey. Oman recently announced that it opposes sanctions on Iran and that it intends to build a gas pipeline connecting it to Iran. It helped Iranian smugglers do business during the previous period of sanctions and it opposes Saudi Arabia's anti-Iranian policy.

Sultan Qaboos, Oman's absolute ruler, is the most veteran Arab leader; he came to power in a coup against his father in 1970. He opposes the Saudi war in Yemen, though he decided late to join the Arab coalition, and has even threatened to withdraw from the Gulf Cooperation Council due to his opposition to Saudi hegemony in the Gulf. When three Gulf States imposed an embargo on Qatar more than a year ago, Oman and Kuwait did not join this dramatic move and Oman even allowed Qatar free use of its ports to get around the blockade, setting a collision course with Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly Oman should have incurred Saudi sanctions no less than Qatar did, and Saudi Arabia might even have penalized Oman if not for American pressure and the desire to avoid a greater rift among the Gulf States.

The visit by an Israeli prime minister to Oman contradicts not only Israel's policy toward Iran, it sticks a toothpick in the eye of the Saudi kingdom. And yet, no condemnation has been heard from Riyadh or other Arab countries. Only Iran responded to the surprise visit with the interpretation that once again Israel and the United States are trying to drive a wedge into the Muslim world. This is relatively moderate verbiage that did not touch on the initiator of the visit, Sultan Qaboos, who is Tehran's ally. Iran cannot criticize Qaboos because back in 2013 it agreed to hold talks in Oman with U.S. officials on laying the groundwork for the nuclear agreement, and then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry subsequently met with Iranian officials for discussions that led to the nuclear talks.

And here we have Oman, on whose soil was born what President Trump called 'the worst agreement ever,' hosting with pomp and circumstance the Israeli prime minister, his wife and his entourage, and no less importantly, the Mossad chief. It is not superfluous to ask why the Mossad head of all people joined the visit, and it would not be baseless to assume that Mossad had a hand not only in planning the trip but also in assisting Qaboos in his rule for years. For years, the sultan's power relied on the British intelligence services to protect his little country of 2.9 million citizens, and another 2 million foreign workers or so. In any case, it is possible to conclude that the visit to Oman is the fulfilment of a promise Netanyahu made to forge ties with Arab countries that have not signed peace agreements with Israel. Thus the visit is very important politically to Netanyahu, but it is still too early to say whether the visit will lead to full diplomatic relations, with other Arab countries following suit.

In the same breath one might wonder what led Qaboos, Iran's ally, to invite an Israeli prime minister and thus raise a wave of speculation about the possibility of talks between Iran and Israel. We do not have to get excited about talks with Iran. The 76-year-old Qaboos, who three years ago fell ill with cancer, is a realistic leader who knows very well the limitations of the conflicts in the region. He certainly received a long lecture from Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen about the Iranian threat and Israel's desire for Oman to distance itself from Israel's enemy and join the U.S. sanctions. Qaboos certainly politely explained to his visitors that he has no intention of changing his taste for Iran. There is nothing new about Israelis visiting his country, considering that an Israeli representation operated in Muscat until 2000, but that was Israel's status in Morocco and Qatar as well.

Qaboos may have understood from Palestinian President Mahmoud 'Abbas, who visited the sultan's palace shortly before Netanyahu, that there is a chance for renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But it is unlikely that this was the reason that Qaboos invited Netanyahu, especially when on the horizon the Trump administration is threatening to announce its deal of the century. If there is someone who should and can persuade Netanyahu to renew the talks, he is sitting in the White House, not on the Persian Gulf coast.

If we let our imagination run wild, Trump might now encourage the Saudi crown prince to promote an agreement with Israel to cleanse himself of the Khashoggi affair, with the Israeli visit to Oman, to the expert go-between, being part of the process. But you have to exercise great caution when you let your imagination speak."

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OMAN IS ISRAEL'S LINK TO THE MIDDLE EAST: Ronen Bergman on Ynet contends that Israel and Oman have been keeping a secret channel of communications since the 1970's. Netanyahu's public visit to the sultanate serves both countries. For Israel, Oman can open a door to normalizing ties with other Arab countries, while Oman gets to present itself to the West as a more moderate and liberal nation.

"In the fall of 1979, two Israelis carrying foreign passports arrived on a flight to Muscat, the capital of Oman. One of them was Reuven Merhav, a senior Mossad official dealing with matters concerning the Middle East, who will later become the director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The other was a member of the IDF's General Staff, Maj. Gen. Menachem (Mendy) Maron. After landing, the two were transferred to a luxurious villa in Muscat and from there flown on a royal jet to meet with Sultan Qaboos at an encampment outside the capital. They were amused by the fact the bathroom on the plane, including the toilet itself, was made of gold.

The discussions lasted into the night, following which the guests went on a covert visit to a tiny Omani enclave called Ras Musandam, which is at the edge of the Musandam Peninsula, which essentially controls the Strait of Hormuz – the global oil gateway. 'The importance of that meeting was in its very existence,' Merhav recounted on Saturday. 'These are direct ties, though covert, with an important Arab country at a highly important strategic location.' This meeting was one of many held since the early 1970s between senior Israeli officials and officials in Oman. The ties with Oman opened the door to important covert ties with other countries in the gulf, primarily the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

 The public visit and the royal reception Prime Minister Netanyahu received over the weekend is the result of four months' work, led by Mossad. It is safe to assume Mossad Director Yossi Cohen visited Muscat to finalize the details of that visit.

Some of the Israeli officials involved in the covert ties with Oman could not help but wonder why the sultan is suddenly willing to have such a public and broadly covered visit now? The answer to that will not be found in Jerusalem. Qaboos wants to show a different side of his country to the West: A more liberal and tolerant side. Netanyahu's visit was scheduled before the Khashoggi assassination, but that terrible event definitely served the sultan's needs in showing the world that Oman is different.

Israel's possible gain from this visit is threefold: Primarily, Oman can serve as a channel to many countries – including Iran, Qatar, and Syria – and is seen by all as an honest broker. Through Oman, Israel could establish covert ties with any player in the region. This, of course, is conditional upon the agreement of that player, but under Qaboos' sponsorship, things are a lot simpler. A senior Israeli official even said that he does not 'rule out the use of Oman to open a secret channel with Iran and Syria.' Secondly, the hope is that other countries would take courage from this visit and also expose their own covert ties with Israel. Finally, for Netanyahu, exposing the ties with Oman is another layer in his Middle Eastern strategy, which includes creating covert alliances – and public ones whenever possible – with moderate Sunni nations and movements, in an effort to prevent Iran's spread throughout the region, as well as undermine Tehran's regional power, all the while proving that Israel can normalize its ties with Arab nations even without solving the Palestinian issue.

There is no doubt Netanyahu's public trip to Muscat is an important diplomatic achievement, but it is doubtful it could lead to normalization with many other Arab countries. It would be far more convenient and safe for the rulers of most of these countries to have close ties with Israel, but quietly, for fear of enraging their citizens."

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