By MICHAEL FREUND
The normally staid world of professional tennis became the latest battleground in the Arab-Israeli conflict this week after the United Arab Emirates decided to bar Israel's Shahar Pe'er from taking part in the Dubai Championships.
Peer, who is ranked 45th in the world, was scheduled to go up against Russian player Anna Chakvetadze on Monday in the first round of the prestigious $2 million tournament, which regularly attracts most of the sport's top-seeded players.
But much to the chagrin of sports fans everywhere, Peer was denied an entry visa by Dubai's ruling sheikhs, presumably because of her country of origin.
"I don't know exactly why, but I can assume that it is because she is Israeli and not because she has brown eyes," her brother and manager Shlomi Pe'er wryly noted.
Unfortunately, this unsportsmanlike decision prompted an equally unseemly reaction from the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), the governing body of women's professional tennis.
Instead of standing up to Dubai's apartheid-style restrictions, the WTA chose to surrender to them.
While acknowledging that association rules forbid a host country from denying a player the right to compete, WTA Chairman Larry Scott nonetheless consented to allow the games to go on.
Labeling Dubai's decision "regrettable", Scott issued a tepid statement to the media, whimpering that, "The Tour is reviewing appropriate remedies for Ms. Peer and also will review appropriate future actions with regard to the future of the Dubai tournament." We all know what that means: not very much.
Indeed, what is truly "regrettable" is that both the WTA and the players themselves did not put principle before prize money. Dubai essentially hung a large "No Jews Allowed" sign over center court, but that didn't seem to bother anyone enough to cancel the tournament.
As criticism mounted over the decision, Scott changed his tone somewhat, telling the Associated Press that the WTA will consider "what types of sanctions are going to be deemed to be appropriate in light of what has happened, including whether or not the tournament has a slot on the calendar next year." This, he added, could mean its future cancellation. But it's a shame he didn't take that step this time around, in order to send a clear-cut message to Dubai that their actions are unacceptable.
Not surprisingly, the contretemps over Peer's visa has triggered a lot of predictable public hand-wringing about the need to keep politics and sports apart. Said tennis superstar Venus Williams, "All the players support Shahar. We are all athletes, and we stand for tennis." That is a noble sentiment, but it misses the point.
Dubai's unsavory decision to block an Israeli tennis player is far more than just an issue of mixing politics with sports. The fact is that it is symptomatic of a larger problem, which is much of the Arab world's lingering hatred and rejection of Israel.
It underlines the extent to which numerous Arab states seek to undermine Israel's legitimacy and existence by negating any contact - even across a tennis net! - with the Jewish state.
WHILE MUCH has been written in recent years about the waning of the once-potent Arab economic and trade embargo against Israel, the Dubai debacle is a compelling reminder that the boycott is still very much a factor.
Just two months ago, as required by law, the US Treasury Department published its quarterly list of countries that actively enforce the Arab boycott against Israel. The inventory included eight Arab regimes: Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
A ninth country, Iraq, was said to be "under review by the Department of the Treasury" with regard to its anti-Israel practices.
While the situation is clearly better than it was, say, three decades ago, when virtually the entire Arab world was off-limits to Israelis, no one should fool themselves into thinking that the boycott is entirely a thing of the past.
Sure, countries such as Egypt and Jordan ceased applying it after signing peace treaties with Israel, while others, such as Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia do not enforce it.
But the boycott might just be making a bit of a comeback. In November of last year, Bahrain's parliament began pressing the Gulf Arab emirate's government to reopen the country's Israel Boycott Office, which was closed two years ago under pressure from Washington.
And in October 2008, Damascus hosted representatives of 14 Arab states at a three-day conference aimed at reinvigorating the embargo on Israel. Speakers at the conference spoke of the boycott's importance as a means of pressuring the Jewish state and called on their fellow members of the Arab League to intensify its enforcement.
In the keynote address to the gathering, Muhammad al-Tayyeb Busala'a, who serves as commissioner general of the Arab League's Central Bureau for the Boycott of Israel, said the trade embargo is vital in order "to challenge the legitimacy of Israel's existence." These sentiments appear to have picked up steam in the wake of Israel's counter-terror operation in Gaza, which sparked renewed calls in various Arab countries to boycott the Jewish state.
IT IS therefore essential that the Obama Administration make this issue more of a diplomatic priority, and soon, particularly as it seeks to "reach out" to the Muslim world.
At the same time that Washington is looking to foster more engagement with Arab regimes, it cannot and should not countenance their ongoing disengagement from contact with Israel.
And yet, thus far, neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have uttered a word about the Arab boycott, nor has special Middle East envoy George Mitchell. It is as if it doesn't exist on their radar screens.
In light of Shahar Pe'er's latest scrape with Dubai's outrageous policies, now would be a good time for them to break their silence.
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