Opinion

The 'Oman File': Inside the Mossad's Alliance With Muscat, Israel's Window Into Iran

For more than half a century, a powerful convergence of interests has united Israel and Oman, the third Arab country after Lebanon and Jordan to maintain secret ties with the Mossad

Through its close contact with Omani officials, Israel has a window into Iran’s thinking. Aerial view of Jebel Kawr near Ibri, Oman, November 26, 2019
CHRISTOPHER PIKE/ REUTERS

Oman rushed to crown its new leader after the death of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said al Said, its ruler for fifty years. It was a clear sign of the Gulf state's determination to ensure a smooth transfer of power and inject a sense of stability after the passing of the longest serving leader in the Arab world.

The big question for Israel is whether Qaboos' successor, Haithman Bin Tarik al Said, 65 years old and a cousin of the late Sultan, will follow in his predecessor's footsteps in terms of Oman's foreign policy in general, and its close relations with Israel in particular. Those relations, forged in war, were cultivated in great secrecy and managed for decades by Israel's spy agency Mossad. Qaboos had good reason to value those ties: Israeli forces had helped save his place on the throne.

Oman, with a population of 4.5 million people and significant land mass -15 times the size of Israel - has crucial geostrategic importance. It overlooks the Straits of Hormuz, gatekeeping the Persian Gulf, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil flows. Oman shares borders with Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and less than 200km, over the Gulf of Oman, separates Muscat, the capital, from the Iranian mainland.

Its particular location and history were among the reasons which led Oman to reach out to Israel – back in the 1960s. Qaboos had taken power in a bloodless coup d’état after overthrowing his father Sultan Said bin Taimur, with the support of the British government. Qaboos was a graduate of Britain's Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and had served in the British army.

STRINGER/ REUTERS

The first connection paving the way for Omani-Israeli ties was formed by a team of former British spies and Special Forces commanders – and it all started in Yemen.

In 1963, a group of young Yemeni officers toppled Yemen’s monarchy and declared the country as a republic; they were backed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. As a result, civil war broke out. The Egyptian army entered the war on the side of the republicans, using chemical weapons against the royalists.

The Yemeni royalists were assisted by Saudi Arabia and the British team led by the legendary Second World War colonel David Sterling, founder of the Special Air Service (SAS), a model for many special forces around the globe, including Israel's Sayeret Matkal. Sterling worked alongside colonels Jim Johnson and David Smiley, a veteran of various secret British operations during WWII, including missions in Palestine and Syria.

At a certain stage during Yemen’s civil war, Johnson asked Nahum Admoni - then a young Mossad operative - and then-Israeli Air Force  commander Ezer Weizman, to lend a hand to the British war efforts in support of the royalists. Both agreed. Admoni would later rise to become the head of Mossad, and Weizman to become Israel's seventh president.

Mossad agent and the Israeli air force colonel Zeev Liron was sent to Smiley’s headquarters in Yemen to survey the land. Liron traveled by air and land to Yemen under a false identity - an arduous trip which included riding mules - and on his return, he recommended Israel's participation in the operation. IAF pilots flew 14 highly dangerous missions in a Stratocruiser transporter and dropped weapons and ammunition from the air to the royalist forces.

The civil war ended in early 1967, and the royalists were defeated.. Nevertheless, the Egyptian army didn’t celebrate its victory. It had performed poorly, its morale was low and the Yemen misadventure was one of the reasons why Israel won the Six Day War in June 1967.

La'am

But the war did result in closer ties between Britain's Smiley and the Mossad's Admoni – that led the way to Muscat. Smiley, who had served as a military adviser to the Sultan of Oman, advised Qaboos to get in touch with Israel. Qaboos was interested, and representatives from the  Mossad’s Tevel department (in charge of clandestine relations with Arab and Muslim states with no diplomatic relations with Israel) would occasionally meet with their Omani counterparts.

Oman became the third Arab country - after Lebanon and Jordan - to maintain secret ties with the Mossad.

In Jordan, those ties were with King Hussein; in Lebanon, with President Camille Chamoun who, during his retirement, was even given permission by Israeli military intelligence to go hunting for pleasure near the Israeli border.

In 1975, relations between Israel and Oman reached a new level. Forces from the radical socialist South Yemen had invaded Oman’s Dhofar region, in the south of the sultanate in support of a long-running insurgency. Britain and Iran, then ruled by the Shah, tried to quell the revolt but in vain. Israeli military advisers, coordinated by Mossad’s operative Ephraim Halevy, later also head of the agency, rushed to Oman to help end the revolt.

The episode was a classic and propitious example of the convergence of national interests between Israel and Oman. Muscat had to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty. For Israel, South Yemen a hostile state and key training ground for Palestinian terrorists, including the Entebbe hijackers, and overlooked one of Israel's key oil supply routes. 

Ariel Shalit

Away from the battlefield, the Mossad was also instrumental in assisting Oman improve its water resources to irrigate its arid land. The water plan was design by Haim Tsaban, the engineer brother of Yair, a former MK from the Meretz party.

For the next two decades the Mossad continued to play a role maintaining the Omani "file." In 1994, following Israel's signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which resulted in a major extension of Israel's diplomatic, military and economic relations with Non Aligned Bloc states, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, accompanied by Ephraim Halevy, flew to Oman and met with Qaboos. Rabin flew directly from Tel Aviv to Muscat. It was the first publicly-announced encounter between Israel and Oman, but nearly 30 years since they'd initiated undercover contact.

Two years later Shimon Peres, who became prime minister after Rabin's murder, also visited Oman. Immediately following his meeting with Qaboos, Israel opened an official mission in Muscat, the capital of Oman.

Even after Benjamin Netanyahu defeated Peres in the 1996 elections and became prime minister, Oman continued to play an important role in its efforts to improve Israel's standing – if not normalization - in the Arab world. The Sultan decided to try and remove one specific obstacle: the state of hostilities between Israel and Syria.

Qaboos instructed his foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi to broker a peace deal between President Hafez Assad of Syria and Netanyahu. Uzi Arad, a former senior Mossad operative and a diplomatic adviser to Netanyahu, met with Alawi three times from 1996 to 1998 in Europe.

No peace treaty with Syria resulted, but the meetings reflected an important element of Omani foreign policy: to ease tensions in the Middle East, be it between Iran and the U.S. (Oman helped broker the Obama administration's nuclear deal in 2015) or between Israel and Palestine.

In 2000, with the outbreak of the second Intifada and the bloody clashes between the IDF and Palestinians, Oman - together with other Arab countries such as Qatar, UAE, and Morocco - severed official ties with Israel.

Moshe Milner/La'am

Yet Oman would not let its ties drop completely. Once again, Israel-Oman relations went underground, maintained via the Mossad. Open ties surfaced again in 2008. That year, Oman's Foreign Minister Alawi met publicly with his counterpart Tzipi Livni in Qatar. 

AFP

Ten years later, Netanyahu, escorted by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, flew over Saudi airspace to Oman (with a face-saving two-minute "stop-off" in Amman to prevent the formal appearance that Saudi Arabia had allowed a direct flight from Israel to overfly its airspace) and met with Sultan Qaboos.

Netanyahu and Cohen tried to portray the visit as a unique historic event. That convenient piece of storytelling conveniently forgot that two other Israeli prime ministers had made it to Muscat decades earlier - not to mention practically all the Mossad heads since 1970.

For Israel, there have clearly been benefits to the ties with Oman – diplomatic, strategic, trade and public image – but one of the more significant benefits is the fact that Oman has also good relations with Iran, Israel’s most bitter enemy. Through its close contact with Omani officials, Israel was offered a window into Iran’s thinking.

Israeli officials with long experience in the Omani game tend to think that the new Sultan, who served under Alawi as Director General of the Omani foreign ministry, will maintain Qaboos' longstanding foreign policy and strategy, meaning a continuation of the Gulf state's long history of both open and clandestine ties with Israel.