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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Oman Foreign Minister: we can help, but only the US can find a 'solution' for Israel and Palestine

The statement came after the first visit by an Israeli leader in over 20 years and amid increasing tension in Gaza writes Mina Aldroubi in Bahrain and Saleh Al Shaibany in Muscat

Oman's foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi visits the Al-Aqsa mosques compound in Arab east Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock mosque seen in the background. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
Oman's foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi visits the Al-Aqsa mosques compound in Arab east Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock mosque seen in the background. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Muscat is not a mediator for Israel or Palestinians but it will seek to bring the two sides together, Oman's foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi said on Saturday.

Speaking during a security conference in Bahrain, he said that "Israel is a state in the region, we know that and the world knows that ... but Israel does not treat its neighbours as other countries do.”

He suggested that by treating Israel as a neighbouring state it would also force the country to modify its actions in the region. “Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same [as others states] and also bear the same obligations.

"We cannot exclude anyone in this region," he said.

The comments came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman on Friday to meet Sultan Qaboos bin Said in a move described by a senior Omani foreign ministry official as a bid to “resuscitate” peace talks in the Middle East.

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Mr Netanyahu’s arrival in Muscat followed the visit of Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas in the same week. The visits of both leaders were in the invitation of Sultan Qaboos.

“This visit sheds more light on the Sultanate’s efforts made in preparation for the resumption of contacts and the activation of the peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis, the official Oman News Agency (ONA) said a statement after the visit.

"We have started our initiative to gather opinions that we consider important. If we follow this track the entire world will be supporting us, but if we don’t, we should not expect any assistance from the international community and the suffering of the Palestinians will continue," Mr Alawi said on Saturday.

He called on the US to play more of an active role in securing peace.

"The US is the country able to come to a solution that all sides agree on. There is no disagreement on establishing an independent Palestinian state, but certain ideas are being developed," said Mr Alawi in Bahrain.

He added that "we see that the state of Palestine needs to be established because it has become a strategic necessity to get rid of terrorism and instability in the region."

The sultanate has sought to encourage negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians and has called for the need for a Palestinian state, while also acknowledging a need for an Israeli state.

Mr Netanyahu’s visit is the first time in more than 20 years that an Israeli leader has travelled to the sultanate. Like most Arab countries, Oman does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel and it is rare for an Israeli leader to visit any of the neighbouring Middle Eastern countries.

“The visits of the two leaders [Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas] in the same week are not a coincidence. Oman is keen to end the roller coaster of this peace talk and help put it back on track,” the foreign ministry source told The National. “Both sides have a lot in common and nothing to lose if they continue the talks on positive grounds. Oman is not looking to be a mediator between the two sides but it is an attempt to bridge their differences by exploring fresh viewpoints that have not been looked at before,” the official said but declined to go into detail.

He added the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine is a reality but needed “genuine commitments” from all stakeholders of the peace process.

Speaking at the Manama Dialogue on Saturday, Jordan’s foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that the Israel-Palestine was of the utmost importance for his country but he warned that the current deadlock was a “fertile ground” for extremism and radicals.

“The situation is extremely dangerous now… if the deadlock continues it [will] create an environment of despair which could explode at any moment and which provides fertile ground for every spoiler and every radical to exploit with a view of propagating an agenda of hate and fear.”

Also speaking in Bahrain on Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir was asked about the regional view of Israel.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir speaks during the second day of the 14th Manama Dialogue, Security Summit in Manama, Bahrain. Hamad l Mohammed / Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir speaks during the second day of the 14th Manama Dialogue, Security Summit in Manama, Bahrain. Hamad l Mohammed / Reuters

“We have no relations with Israel,” he said. “We think that the key to normalising relations with Israel will have to be the peace process and this is enshrined in the Arab Peace Initiative … that calls for Israel to withdraw from occupied Palestinian territory and allow a Palestinian state within 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital in exchange for peace and normalisation. This remains our position today.”

The visit came after renewed tensions on the Gaza border as Israel struck dozens of targets on Friday night following the heaviest salvo of rockets fired out of the territory since August.

There were no casualties reported in either Israel or Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad, one of the other armed groups that operate in Gaza, said in a statement it had fired the rockets in response to Israel's killing of four Palestinian protesters on Friday near the border.

"The Islamic Jihad will abide by a ceasefire as long as the enemy abides by it. Should bombardment and aggression continue, the resistance will respond," the group said. On Saturday afternoon it said that Egyptian mediation efforts had convinced it to cease firing rockets for the time being but added that Israel of resorting to military escalation "to evade obligations" of a comprehensive cease-fire that Hamas has long sought.

Israel said its air force hit more than 80 targets including a four-storey building used by Hamas as a headquarters, in response to more than 30 rockets launched into Israel. There was no immediate comment from Hamas.

In Gaza, most of the airstrikes hit open spaces used by militants for training and possibly weapons storage.

But in northern Gaza, the Health Ministry said that the main hospital in the area was damaged after a nearby Hamas training camp was hit. Footage showed cables and wires dropping from collapsed ceilings in the wards.

In Gaza City, an airstrike hit an abandoned, unfinished building, flattening the three-story structure. That building appeared to be the one identified by Israel as a security headquarters.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the rockets were launched at the request of Iran. "We have seen and established a clear link between Gaza and Damascus," he said. "We know that the orders, incentives were given from Damascus with the clear involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force."

"From our perspective, part of the address by which we will deal with this fire is also in Damascus and the Quds Force," he added. "Our response is not limited geographically."

Iran is a major actor in Syria after it sent forces to bolster the military of embattled president Bashar Al Assad early on in the now seven-year-long civil war.

Muscat-based political commentator and retired journalist, Ali Al Nabhani, told The National that it was unlikely the visits of both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas would lead to a sudden breakthrough but it would offer a fresh start to stalled negotiations that have failed before.

“The track record of Oman’s political mediation has proven that Sultan Qaboos has a different approach to difficult situations,” Mr Al Nabhani said. “But it is hard to read the situation as it stands now on how Oman can unlock many years of failures to reach a two-state solution. I am sure Oman thinks it is worth a shot,” he added.

“While from the Israeli side, Netanyahu wants to show that his country is keen to explore new venues to find a solution to the peace process. He is also eager to make an international impression,” he said.

Oman has often acted as a mediator between rival nations. The first secret talks between the US and Iran ahead of the nuclear agreement were held in Oman in 2013.

Oman also plays a mediating role on the sidelines with various actors in Yemen to facilitate talks and to trying and bring regional powers back to the negotiation table for the Qatar dispute.