Diplomacy: Israel and the Islamic world - separating spin from reality

Do recent rumors point to improved relations with long-time foes?

silvan shalom 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
silvan shalom 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
On the face of it, or judging from a cursory glance at headlines since the disengagement in August, Israel's relations with the Islamic world appear to be on the upswing. Bahrain cancelled its boycott of Israeli goods; the United Arab Emirates allowed Israel to covertly open a business interest section; the Pakistani Foreign Minister met out in the open with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom; Shalom also met Indonesia's Foreign Minister at the UN; and this week a Pakistani paper reported that Afghanistan was on the verge of recognizing Israel. All of a sudden Shalom's claim that Israel could establish ties with 10 Islamic countries - a claim Shalom has been repeating for well over a year - did not look all that far-fetched. As a result of disengagement, the "iron wall" -Shalom's term - separating Israel from the Arab and Islamic world appeared to be coming down. Or does it? This week's story about Afghanistan's imminent recognition of Israel is indicative of the state of Israel's relations with the Islamic word - some pleasant atmospherics, but little practical action. Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem were downright eager Saturday night to express their pleasure at a report in the Pakistani media, based on diplomatic sources in Afghanistan, that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was on the verge of recognizing Israel, and that this would take place in a matter of days. This development, the officials noted, was the result of Shalom's campaign to make inroads into the Islamic world. The only problem was that the very next day a spokesman for Karzai made it clear that this recognition would only come after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Karzai said as much himself in an interview with Yediot Aharonot (itself a nice gesture, but not exactly an Afghani interest section in Tel Aviv). "When there is more progress and the Palestinians will begin to get their own state, Afghanistan will be happy to have full relations with Israel," he said. And Karzai is not alone. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in his high profile speech to Jewish leaders in New York last month, made it clear that despite all the excitement over a public meeting between Shalom and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri in Turkey, diplomatic relations were a long way off. "Our people have a deep sense of sympathy for the Palestinian people and their legitimate aspirations for statehood. In response to the bold step taken by Prime Minister Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza, Pakistan decided to initiate an official contact with Israel... As the peace process progresses towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian State, we will take further steps towards normalization and cooperation, looking to full diplomatic relations." In other words, Musharraf was willing to throw a bone in Israel's direction as a prize for disengagement. But forget about the entire steak, that will only come with Palestinian independence. This, it seems, sums up the Islamic world's position on ties with Israel. "The consensus in the Muslim world, from Libya to Afghanistan, is that they have no desire to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians," one diplomatic official in Jerusalem said this week, when asked to separate spin from reality regarding the nature of Israel's relations with the Islamic world. "As long as the Palestinians aren't celebrating over Israel's moves, the Islamic world won't celebrate... As long as the Palestinians don't give the green light for normalization, the Islamic world won't normalize." The official contrasted the situation now with what existed in 1993, after the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. "Regardless of what one thinks of the Oslo Accords, following the ceremony on the White House lawn there was a huge movement in public opinion in the world in general, and the Arab world in particular, that made possible various ceremonies and international conferences, as well as the opening of [Arab countries'] interest sections in Israel." A similar trend has not followed in the wake of disengagement. Granted, Sharon was greeted warmly at the United Nations last month and received a nice letter from Morocco's King Muhammad VI praising the move. But Arab world leaders did not fall over themselves waiting to shake Sharon's hand in New York, and Morocco has not rushed to re-open its interest section in Tel Aviv, closed following the out break of Palestinian violence in 2000. This time, the official said, the Islamic world was waiting on the side to see where things are headed. The ambassador of a key country in Europe, when asked recently whether his country was approached by Israel to try and make inroads into various Arab countries, replied with a question of his own. "Put yourself in their shoes," he said. "What do they have to gain by establishing relations with Israel now before a Palestinian state is created?" One reply to this from the Foreign Ministry is that these ties would win these countries points in their relations with Washington. But whereas this may have been a key factor following Oslo in 1993, it is less of a factor now. Despite the popular belief that the road to Washington leads through Jerusalem, now that the US has declared its war on terror and radical Islam, this is not necessarily the case. If an Islamic or Arab government now wants to butter up Washington, it can do so just as easily by indicating that it is on America's side in the war against terror and radical Islam. This, the official said, is worth more now in Washington than making nice with Israel. Sharon earned a lot of credit in parts of the Arab world because of disengagement, but there is still a heaping dose of skepticism regarding where he will go from here. Before knocking down the iron wall, or even denting it, the governments in a number of Arab and Islamic countries are interested in seeing where things are headed. Shalom's claim that it was highly conceivable that at the right time 10 Islamic countries would establish ties with Israel begs the question: When would that time would come? At one point the foreign minister's hope was that it would happen after Jordan and Egypt returned their ambassadors to Tel Aviv; at another time the key date was thought to be post-disengagement. But now, with no "right time" on the horizon, the following is a quick glance at the likely candidates and a look at where their ties with Israel stand today.
  • Tunisia: Shalom is scheduled to travel to Tunisia in mid-November to take part in the UN sponsored World Summit on Information Society, the first visit by an Israeli foreign minister to that country. Although significant, the importance of the visit should be tempered by the fact that he is going to an international conference where invitations were sent to all UN member states. Tunisia, which had an interest section here that was closed in 2000, has given little indication that it will reopen it any time soon. • Morocco: Like Tunisia, Morocco also closed its interest section in Israel following the Palestinian violence in 2000 and there are no concrete indications that it plans on re-opening it imminently. Shalom visited Morocco in September 2003 and at the time said the country had taken a "strategic" decision to reestablish diplomatic ties with Israel, and even upgrade those ties. The reopening of the liaison offices was expected within days. It has still not happened.
  • Libya: There was some excitement toward the end of 2003 that inroads had been made, following a meeting between Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, and MKs Efraim Sneh, Ilan Shalgi, and two unnamed former senior intelligence officers at an academic conference in Athens. This was enhanced by reports of a meeting between Ron Prosor, at the time Shalom's senior advisor, and a Libyan official in Paris about the possibility of opening a dialogue. Nothing concrete has developed.
  • Bahrain: When the government announced its decision to end its boycott of Israeli products last month, it made headlines. The decision, however, was taken as part of US requirements for a free trade agreement. Bahrain's new foreign minister Sheikh Khaled Bin Ahmad Bin Muhammad al-Khalifa was quoted last week in the Arab press as saying that his country had no intention of establishing ties with Israel.
  • Kuwait: There is talk of lifting the economic boycott against Israel, but this too is linked to a free trade agreement with the US. At the same time, there have been reports of a more conciliatory approach to Israel appearing in some of the country's newspapers. One diplomatic official in Jerusalem, however, was underwhelmed, saying that nothing has changed on the governmental level.
  • United Arab Emirates: Following reports in the Israeli media in September that Israel had surreptitiously set up a business mission in Dubai, The UAE Foreign Ministry flatly denied the reports, and reiterated the country's position that relations with Israel would not be established before Israel recognized the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to the establishment of an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.
  • Qatar: Israel continues to have a business delegation in Qatar, and the Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani met publicly with Shalom at the UN.
  • Oman: Israel is a member of the Middle East Desalination Research Center in Oman involved in basic and applied research in water desalination. Israeli officials frequently go to Muscat to take part in the center's proceedings. Nevertheless, Oman closed its interest section in Israel in September 2000.
  • Pakistan: Despite the joint decision to go public with the meeting between the two foreign ministers in Turkey at the end of August, and despite the handshake at the UN between Musharraf and Sharon, little has moved toward formalizing ties. An indication of the long road ahead became evident when it took Pakistan a week to accept Israeli offers of aid in the wake of that country's devastating earthquake, and then only if it would be funneled through a third party.
  • Indonesia: Despite a meeting between Shalom and Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda at the UN, little progress has been made toward normalization. Indeed, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was quoted as saying last week that Indonesia wouldn't open diplomatic channels with Israel until the Palestinians achieve independence.
  • Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Malaysia: Little to no chance of any significant movement any time soon.