On my mind: Mauritania’s promise

Yet despite these difficulties, opportunities for new initiatives to advance peace with Israel may very well surface.

A BOY carries loaves of bread in a Nouakchott marketplace in 2009. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A BOY carries loaves of bread in a Nouakchott marketplace in 2009.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Mauritania, the third Arab country to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, recently hosted the Arab League Summit. While the Israel-Mauritania relationship ended after seven years and the Arab summit summarily concluded on the first of the scheduled two days – after only six hours of deliberations – symbolism is important.
Geography alone would hardly make this desert nation a likely candidate to make peace with Israel, let alone be considered one of the 22 Arab League members most capable of hosting the organization’s 27th annual gathering. Tucked between the disputed Western Sahara, Senegal, Algeria and the Atlantic Ocean, Mauritania is one of the smallest and poorest Arab countries.
I visited Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, with an American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation in February 2001, two years after Mauritania and Israel exchanged ambassadors. In their conversations with us, the country’s leaders stressed their determination to act on the principle that, as demonstrated by Egypt and Jordan, peace between individual Arab countries and Israel did not have to wait until Palestinian leaders are genuinely ready to negotiate an end to the conflict with Israel.
Israel’s formal peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have endured. The bilateral relationship with Mauritania survived a 2003 coup attempt by radical Islamic forces and a 2005 secular military coup, which yielded power to the winner of democratic elections in 2007.
That government showed interest in developing cooperative ties. AJC and Israel built a cancer center in the capital city as a gesture of friendship. But Mauritania’s connection with Israel was a casualty of the 2008 Islamist coup. Iran took over the cancer hospital.
The vision of some Mauritanians still resonates to some degree in the Arab world. There have been efforts, mostly behind the scenes but occasionally public, to relate to Israel as Arab leaders rethink their own long held dogmas. To be sure, nothing as powerful as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s extraordinary visit to Israel and address to the Knesset in 1977 has yet occurred, but other Arab leaders have come very close. Notably, the Qatari emir was the first Arab head of state to visit Gaza, in 2012, followed by the foreign ministers of several other Arab countries. But each chose to use the opportunity to reinforce support for Hamas, and not press for recognition of Israel and an end to terrorism.
Still, the occasional public, positive event should no longer be a surprise. Last November, Israel opened a diplomatic office in the UAE linked to the International Renewable Energy Agency, marking Israel’s first official return to the Gulf since Qatar and Oman shut down its trade offices more than a decade ago.
The visit to Jerusalem last month of retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki and a delegation of Saudi academics and businessmen received groundbreaking media coverage, mainly due to Eshki’s openness. Though the publicity led a Saudi Foreign Ministry official to reassert that his country’s citizens are forbidden to visit Israel, the group, which met with Knesset members and Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem before returning to Saudi Arabia, no doubt had official permission to make the trip.
Yes, Eshki’s standard statement that peace with Saudi Arabia would come only after Israeli-Palestinian peace was disappointing, and it would be much better if a Saudi government official would take the initiative to visit Israel. Still, the fact that a Saudi delegation did come so publicly is another positive step on the long, slow path to widening Arab-Israel peace. It is a reaffirmation of hope that must be sustained.
Meanwhile, only eight heads of state – those from Mauritania, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti, Comoros, Qatar and Kuwait – showed up at the Arab League summit, reflecting the deepening cleavages within individual Arab countries and the region. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah and the leaders of Tunisia, Algeria and the Palestinian Authority stayed away.
Indeed, the 2016 Arab summit almost did not take place at all. It was originally set for March in Marrakesh, but Morocco backed out on short notice, declaring that “this summit will be just another occasion to approve ordinary resolutions and to pronounce speeches that give a false impression of unity.”
Continuing instability related to the upheavals of the “Arab Spring” five years ago, the ongoing wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the threat of ISIS, and other crises are straining the 71-year-old Arab League, which, like other regional blocs around the world confronts serious challenges to its viability and pretensions to unity.
Yet despite these difficulties, opportunities for new initiatives to advance peace with Israel may very well surface. That would take visionary leaders who have the confidence and courage to act on their convictions, to step forward into the limelight.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.