Feb 25, 2020 - World

Scoop: What really happened on Netanyahu's landmark visit to Oman

Netanyahu with sultan of Oman
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting with the sultan of Oman, Oct. 26, 2018. Photo: Israeli Prime Ministry Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's historic visit to Oman lay a failed effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and an embarrassing diplomatic incident that almost torpedoed the visit, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: The October 2018 trip ranks as one of Netanyahu's signature foreign policy achievements, as he was the first Israeli leader to visit Oman in 22 years. But the story of what exactly took place has not previously been told.

Behind the scenes: Netanyahu was set to travel with only a small group of aides, officials involved in preparations for the trip tell me.

  • But two days before Netanyahu's departure for Muscat, his wife Sara asked to join.
  • Netanyahu updated his advisers accordingly, but the director of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, Yossi Cohen, explained that it would violate protocol and prior agreements with the Omanis.

Netanyahu asked his advisers to explain the situation to his wife and convince her to agree to stay home, Israeli officials told me.

  • Cohen and other senior officials met with Sara Netanyahu and explained that because Sultan Qaboos, who has since died, was not married, foreign leaders never brought their wives to Oman.
  • Those explanations didn't convince her. To the shock of the officials, the prime minister backed his wife. He asked Mossad to tell the Omanis that his wife would be joining him.
  • “Sara pushed and pushed and Bibi just couldn’t handle it," one Israeli official tells me.

A day before Netanyahu departed for Oman, a senior Mossad official was sent to brief the Omanis on the change of plans.

  • The Mossad official apologized, explained that Sara Netanyahu had a “temper” and said the prime minister was in a sensitive position.
  • The sultan's aides were amazed, but Qaboos agreed to the change when they briefed him.

Between the lines: That was in part because the sultan had an agenda for the visit: He wanted Netanyahu to accept his plan to restart the peace process.

  • Qaboos pitched a secret summit between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Muscat.
  • The goal was to lower tensions and start a dialogue ahead of the expected release of President Trump's peace plan.
  • Netanyahu made no commitments upon hearing the plan, but Abbas said yes when offered the same proposal a few days later in Muscat.
  • When the Omanis went back to Netanyahu, he asked for further clarifications, Israeli officials tell me.

A few months later, in February 2019, the Omani foreign minister again raised the proposal with Netanyahu, this time in Warsaw and with clarifications the prime minister had sought.

  • When Netanyahu again declined to give a straight answer, the Omanis understood that he was playing for time and put the initiative aside.
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