At the 14th annual International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Manama Dialogue, a three-day summit which opened in Bahrain on Friday, a list of impressive speakers from the Middle East spoke about developments in the region. Jordan's Minister of Foreign Affairs gave a speech on behalf of King Abdullah II of Jordan. He argued passionately for a two-state solution. "Israel is in the Middle East, but it is yet to be of the Middle East," he said in response to a question, according to Reuters correspondent Amena Bakr.
However, Oman, which hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a surprise visit last week, said that it was time for Israel to be accepted in the Middle East. "Israel is a state in the region, and we all understand this," Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman's minister of foreign affairs told the audience. "We are not saying that the road is now easy and paved with flowers, but our priority is to put an end to the conflict and move to a new world," he said.
Israel was not present at the forum. But the foreign ministers of both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia discussed the issue of Israel-Palestinian peace, and Riyadh hinted at how a peace agreement might pave the way for normalizing relations. "We think that the key to normalizing relations with Israel will have to be the peace process," said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
These were important, symbolic words, but they have also been ideas that some of these states have considered since the 1990s. Peace for recognition. Oman's statement goes beyond that and encourages more engagement with Israel despite the lack of progress on the peace process. Oman may say that doing so will help the peace process along, but the outreach is important.
Across the region, Israel appears to be enjoying points of support. For instance, the visit to Muscat was celebrated in Omani media. Israel's national anthem was also played in Doha during a sporting event, and Israeli athletes were recently in the UAE. Some voices in the Gulf are sharing the news online with obvious approval. The National in the UAE highlighted the visit and had a special photo gallery devoted to it while noting that UAE ally Saudi Arabia had stressed that "Iran is the primary driver of instability in the region."
The subtle message was that Iran is the problem, and Oman's gesture to Israel is good for the region.
The Oman visit has caused many to wonder about the hypocrisy in the Middle East. For instance, a commentator on Al Jazeera in Arabic said she rejected "normalization" with Israel, but many on Twitter kept asking why it is that Doha hosts Israeli athletes with the Israeli flag. Kurdish commentators in northern Iraq also noted that the Kurdish region has often been excoriated for having relations with Israel, while the Omanis are now reaching out. Halal for them, haram for us, wondered one man, using the Arabic words for acceptable and forbidden.
Iranian media is perplexed by such a public welcome to Israel in Oman. For many years, Tehran has tried to keep alive the notion that Israel is the sole problem in the region, with annual "Jerusalem Day" events, and by constantly talking about Israeli threats. But the Syrian civil war, in which Iran partnered with the regime in Damascus and was seen as aiding the slaughter of civilians, has harmed Tehran's image. All that the Iranian media could do was stress that Israel's visit to Oman was not as good as it seems. The "sultanate was only offering ideas to help Israel and Palestinians to come together," Iran's Press TV, claimed. Tasnim News carried an article about IRGC commander Mohammed Ali Jafari giving a speech for Arba'een, a Shi'ite pilgrimage, claiming Muslims should unite against "global arrogance," which tends to be a reference to the US and Israel.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.