“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret visit to the Gulf nation of Oman on Friday — the first by an Israeli leader in over two decades, and a sign of warming ties between the Jewish state and the Sunni Arab world.
On Friday afternoon, his office surprisingly announced that Netanyahu and his wife Sara had just returned from an “official diplomatic visit” to Muscat, during which they met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said. […]
The Netanyahus were invited to Oman by the sultan, who has been ruling the Gulf state since 1970, “after lengthy contacts between the two countries,” the statement said.
A joint statement issued by Jerusalem and Muscat said the two leaders discussed “ways to advance the peace process in the Middle East as well as several matters of joint interest regarding the achievement of peace and stability in the Middle East.”
Netanyahu and his wife were accompanied to Muscat by Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Foreign Ministry Director-General Yuval Rotem, the head of the Prime Minister’s staff, Yigal Horowitz, and the Prime Minister’s Military Secretary, Brig.-Gen. Avi Bluth.”
While that news did not receive any coverage whatsoever on the BBC’s English language website, it was reported in Arabic.
The evening edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour‘ on October 26th included a five-minute account of the story in which listeners heard a trip which had not been public knowledge until a few hours beforehand described as a “high-profile, very public visit by Netanyahu to Oman”.
Donnison: “The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously likes to say he grew up in a tough neighbourhood, his country surrounded – as he would see it – by Arab enemies.”
Despite having done a stint in the Middle East Donnison is apparently unaware of the fact that five Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state seventeen months before Netanyahu was born and tried to repeat the exercise twice before his 24th birthday.
Donnison went on:
Donnison: “These days though he boasts that never before has Israel had such good relations with the Arab world. One country not visited by an Israeli prime minister for more than 20 years is the Gulf state of Oman. But Mr Netanyahu has just changed that, having held talks with Sultan Qaboos of Oman in the Omani capital Muscat. So what’s the significance of this visit? Ian Black is a veteran Middle East watcher and currently a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.”
Unsurprisingly to those familiar with Ian Black’s record as former Middle East editor for the Guardian, the sole commentary heard by English-speaking BBC audiences dwelt on one side of this story, encouraging listeners to view it in terms of “narrative”.
Black: “It’s important to understand that the background to this is that Israel only has normal diplomatic relations with two Arab countries. It’s had them with Egypt since 1979 and with Jordan since 1994: two of its immediate neighbours. But there’s always been a strand in Israeli policy to try to reach out to other Arab countries and in recent years that has really accelerated, particularly with the Gulf States. So the trip to Oman that Netanyahu has just returned from is not the first time there’s been such a trip: the first one happened back in the 1990s and that was then Yitzhak Rabin the Labour prime minister. But there’s a sort of Israeli narrative that – particularly pushed by Netanyahu – that says Israel is really doing well with the neighbourhood, particularly the Gulf States. We hear more about relations with the United Arab Emirates and with Saudi Arabia actually. But the Oman trip fits very much into that pattern and he will indeed be boasting about it as a sign of increasingly good ties with the Arab world.”
Donnison: “And is this about lining up opposition to Iran? You’ve got of course countries like Saudi Arabia, hostile with Iran. What’s Oman’s position?”
Black: “Well actually it’s interesting because the Omanis have quite good relations with Iran; they’re just across the Gulf – they certainly have a far better and more pragmatic relationship than any of their other Gulf neighbours – but Iran is part of it. But I think also it’s this idea that Netanyahu has that Israel can build on relations with Arab states and therefore increase pressure on – or indeed marginalise – the Palestinians. The Palestinian-Israeli peace process: no such thing has existed now for over four years. There’s been all sorts of talk about Donald Trump and his deal of the century to resolve that oldest of conflicts in the region [sic] but nothing’s happened. So Netanyahu is pushing this narrative of we can build good relations with our Arab neighbours and that’s good for Israel in the Middle East. He emphasises a lot of things like technology, cyber security are important things. He focuses on what Israel can give those countries beyond the toxic issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which, by and large, he wants to try to ignore and put to one side. So…”
Donnison: “I mean that was high issue wasn’t it? That Oman withdrew its diplomatic mission along with other Arab countries.”
Black: “There was a previous period when in 1993 Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation signed the famous Oslo Agreement and that was the very, very historic moment. Now it never worked out and it ended badly but in the years after that there was a flowering, if you like, of Israel’s relations with the wider Arab world. It included Oman and Qatarand further afield countries like Morocco and Tunisia and even Mauritania. So those relationships happened at the time but they came to an end because the Palestinian conflict never went away and those diplomatic missions were closed down. So this high-profile, very public visit by Netanyahu to Oman signals that maybe things are in business again, despite having got no closer to resolving the Palestinian question.”
Donnison: “And one slightly separate issue: what’s Prime Minister Netanyahu been saying about Saudi Arabia this past few weeks when there’s been all this criticism of course over the Jamal Khashoggi affair? Has Israel been speaking out on that?”
Black: “That’s a very good question and the answer is that as far as I’m aware there’ve been no official comments whatsoever. There’s been plenty of media commentary, if you like, on the lack of any kind of official comment and the analysis – I think correctly – is that Israel sees Saudi Arabia as an important country, particularly over the confrontation with Iran, particularly over its close relations with the United States but of course it can hardly speak out and praise what’s been happening in Riyadh when there’s such a global outrage over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The Israelis don’t like the Turks either. Their interests lie more closely essentially with Arab autocracies than with more popular Islamist regimes, whether it’s Turkey or Qatar. And like the Saudis and the other Gulf allies they really don’t like political Islamists. They have their own enemy close to home in Palestine with Hamas, the Islamist movement there. So the Israelis I think have been keeping pretty quiet about this as most of the rest of the world has expressed outrage – even from Washington – at what happened in Istanbul the other week.”
Apparently Ian Black would have BBC audiences believe that Qatar is not an Arab autocracy and the BBC has forgotten that its own style guide advises against the use of the term ‘Palestine’ to describe what it calls “an aspiration”.
Donnison: “That was the journalist and veteran Middle East watcher Ian Black.”
As we see BBC audiences heard nothing whatsoever about Oman’s interests in inviting the Israeli prime minister for an official visit. Neither were they informed of additional developments in relations between Israel and Gulf states.
Rather, BBC audiences were encouraged to view this story as part of a “narrative” promoted by Netanyahu in order to “marginalise the Palestinians”. Clearly that framing does not contribute to meeting the BBC’s remit of helping people fully understand this story.