Secret no more: Israel's outreach to Gulf Arab states

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – 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 Miri Regev singing "HaTikva," which show 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 outreach into public view.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a member of the United States. But those ties – still largely unpopular among the Arab public – were rarely visible.

That changed to Friday when Netanyahu made an unannounced visit to Oman, where he met longtime ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Gulf state, to U.S. The United States 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 Sunday. "There will be more."

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

Israel's transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, is scheduled to head to Oman next week

The driving force in these visits seems to be a shared concern over Iran. Israel and many of the Gulf Arab states consider Iran to destabilizing force, meddling in conflicts and supporting rivals across the region. Oman, which borders Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf has often played the role of regional mediators.

It also provides an opportunity for these countries to curry favor in Washington. President Donald Trump has promised to present a plan for the "Deal of the Century" for Mideast peace, and Saudi Arabia's dependence as an influential conduit has been questioned by the fallout of the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate .

Regent's emotional appearance Sunday at the gold medal ceremony in Abu Dhabi was unprecedented and especially remarkable, given her political leanings. At home, she is an outspoken nationalist 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, they do not immediately signal an Arab embrace of Israel.

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

Israeli forces have killed over 160 Palestinians during months of Hamas-led protests in the Gaza Strip against an Israeli blockade and a deepening humanitarian crisis. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut ties with Washington after the White House

The Palestinians are being pushed to their support.

In Muscat, Netanyahu's meeting appears to be dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and his close ties with the Trump administration. With Netanyahu's urging, the U.S. this year pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which Oman had supported.

After the visit, Oman's Foreign Minister Yousef bin Alawi suggested the meeting with the most pressing issues. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, he said Netanyahu had initiated the meeting to present his views on the Mideast issues to Sultan Qaboos.

"What Sultan Qaboos is doing now is nothing short of an intervention," said Sigurd Neubauer, a Washington-based expert on Oman. Palestinian peace process for one obvious reason, and that is (because) the Arab states are so divided. "

Netanyahu without fear of destabilizing backlash, Neubauer said.

That's because Sultan Qaboos, in power since 1970, has a longstanding policy of non-interference. Oman has brokered the release of Western hostages in Yemen and provided a back door for communications between Washington and Tehran under the Obama administration. It is a member of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, but it did not join the kingdom in its boycott of Qatar or the war in Yemen.

Even the Palestinian Fatah Party and Iran fell short of directly condemning Oman after Netanyahu's visit, instead of criticizing Israel's attempt to normalize relations with Arab states.

For Oman, Netanyahu hosting is a message to the Trump administration that is a valid regional player.

"The currency is American currency," Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said. "Oman can be seen between Israel and the Palestinians, but more ambitiously between Iran and Israel."

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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