Netanyahu visits Oman in 2018
Netanyahu visits Oman in 2018Reuters

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in mid-2013 rejected a proposal from the Sultanate of Oman to mediate a back channel between Israel and Iran, Channel 13 News’ Barak Ravid reported on Sunday.

According to the report, which cited four former Israeli officials involved in the negotiations, Netanyahu believed those talks would legitimize the secret US-Iran talks that ultimately led to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Knowledge of the dramatic Omani initiative had until now been restricted to a small group of Israeli officials. When he came into office in 2009, Netanyahu banned the Mossad from engaging in any direct or indirect talks with the Iranians without his clear approval, Israeli officials told Ravid. Such an order doesn’t exist for any other country in the world.

In early 2013, Israel discovered that the US and Iran were holding secret talks behind its back in Muscat, Oman.

Yaakov Amidror, who was then Netanyahu’s national security adviser, told Ravid he protested to his American counterpart Susan Rice at the time, telling her it was insulting that the US thought Israel wouldn't find out about the secret US-Iran back channel in Oman.

"I was disappointed that the Americans more or less cheated us and I told them that," Amidror said.

In May 2013, after Hassan Rouhani — who is perceived by many as a “moderate” — won the presidential elections in Iran, the Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said sought to move forward into the second part of his initiative and promote Iranian-Israeli talks under his auspices, former Israeli officials said.

Several weeks after Rouhani’s victory, the then-director of Mossad Tamir Pardo arrived at his weekly meeting with Netanyahu and presented him with sensitive information from the Sultanate of Oman, according to the former officials.

Israel and Oman had a secret relationship that started five decades ago, and the Omanis had a very good reputation for being discreet and effective mediators, the report noted.

According to the former Israeli officials, the director of Mossad told Netanyahu the Sultan of Oman proposed establishing a secret back channel between Israel and Iran that would enable the parties to talk to each other and de-escalate tensions.

The officials said the Omanis thought Rouhani’s victory opened a window of opportunity and that US-Iran talks could yield better results if Israeli-Iranian negotiations were taking place at the same time.

The message from Oman to Israel at the time was, “Even if you don’t agree on anything, engagement leads to de-escalation and non-engagement could lead to war,” according to the former Israeli officials.

Netanyahu heard what Pardo had to say and got national security adviser Amidror into the picture. Amidror said the Omani interest was to be involved in everything and show that they could be effective mediators, but Israel had to consider whether the proposal served its interests.

Pardo and a group of senior Mossad officials thought the Omani initiative was serious and that Israel should at least explore the possibility of talks with Iran.

Amidror was vehemently against the idea, telling Ravid, "The whole purpose of the Omani initiative was to give cover to the Iranians and the Americans who cheated us."

Netanyahu had more meetings with Pardo and with Amidror and eventually decided to reject the Omani initiative, according to Ravid.

While Amidror still believes that the Mossad position was wrong and that Netanyahu was right to say no to the proposal, other former Israeli officials who were deeply involved in the affair still believe today that the Omani proposal was genuine, that the Iranians would have played ball and that it was a missed opportunity for de-escalation.

As noted, Oman and Israel have had some contacts in recent years. In October of 2018, Netanyahu made a surprise visit to Oman, where he met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who passed away several weeks ago.

Later, Minister Yisrael Katz also visited Oman, where he presented a plan for the construction of a railway between Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

While there has appeared to be rapprochement between Israel and Oman, the sultanate has also said it will open an embassy in the Palestinian territories in support of the Palestinian people