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Islamic Republic of Mauritania and Israel

Mauritania is the only Arab country to have previously formalised its relationship with the Jewish state only to sever it later. In 1999, the US-brokered a diplomatic accord between Mauritania and Israel. Then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright hailed the Maghrebi country as a “force for regional reconciliation and peace”. Yet Israel’s Operation Cast Lead (2008-09) led to Mauritania freezing diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv in 2010.

In 1994, three North African Arab states - Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia - joined other Arab countries and chose to take the path of peace and reconciliation by forming diplomatic ties with Israel.

Initiated in different ways at various levels, relations between Morocco and Israel were formalized when Israel opened a liaison office (November 1994) in the Moroccan capital, Rabat. Four months later, Morocco opened its office in Israel, thus formally establishing bilateral diplomatic relations.

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania and Israel concluded an agreement at the Barcelona Conference (November 1995), in the presence of the Spanish foreign minister, to establish interest sections in the Spanish embassies in Tel Aviv and Nouakchott, respectively. Mauritania opened its diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv (May 1996) and indicated its wish to fully normalize relations with Israel. In October 1999, Mauritania became the third Arab country (after Egypt and Jordan) to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Following a timetable worked out by Israel, Tunisia, and the United States (January 1996), Israel opened an interest office in Tunisia (April 1996), and Tunisia reciprocated six weeks later (May 1996).

Diplomatic relations with the moderate Maghreb countries are important because of the role these countries play in the Arab world, and also because of Israel's large population of North African emigres who retain an emotional attachment to the countries where their families lived for many centuries. This affinity is an asset which may lead to more profound relationships and make a practical contribution to the peace process.

On 28 October 1999 Foreign Minister David Levy signed an agreement establishing full diplomatic relations with Mauritania, an Islamic country and a member of the Arab League. The signing ceremony wasw held at the US State Department in the presence of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - who invited the Foreign Minister and his Mauritanian counterpart, Ahmed Sid'Ahmed, to sign the agreement in Washington. The United States viewed this important development as a product, among other things, of the September 24, 1999 meeting in New York initiated by the United States, and attended by the Foreign Ministers of Israel and many Arab states. Foreign Ministers Levy and Sid'Ahmed also met in New York.

Both Israel and the United States viewed the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and Mauritania - made possible through the efforts of Foreign Ministry Director-General Eytan Bentsur and US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Martin Indyk - as a milestone in the promotion of normalization, which is widely seen as the goal of the peace process which has evolved since the Madrid Conference. The Foreign Ministry will continue to work for the development and strengthening of Israel's relations with other countries in the region.

After the renewal of Palestinian terrorism in 2000, Morocco and Tunisia broke off diplomatic ties with Israel. Nevertheless, some commercial relations and tourism continue, as well as contacts in other fields. Once Egypt and Jordan returned their ambassadors to Israel in 2005, Israel began holding talks with Mauritania on expanding and strengthening bilateral relations.

Venezuela and Bolivia severed diplomatic relations with Israel in January 2009 in the wake of the IDF operation against Hamas in Gaza, followed by Mauritania in March 2009. The presence of the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott had always been polemic for Mauritania. The first Al Qaeda action in Mauritania was the 2008 attack against the embassy (seeming to suggest that the increase in AQIM activities in Mauritania had at least started as a response to the relations with Israel.

The fact that Mauritania was isolated in the region in having relations with Israel has been a source of constant and strong pressure from neighboring states. Mauritanian public opinion remained strongly "90 to 95%" opposed to the relationship. The constant escalation of violence in the region including incursions into Gaza had made the Mauritanian position harder and harder to support on a political front. Material benefits from the relationship were limited to the refurbishment of a hospital -- insufficient to counter the political costs of the relationship.

President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was comfortable with the status quo -- neither returning to a quasi-normal relationship with Israel nor actually breaking relationships. Mauritania may follow the lead of other Arab states if they have a rapprochement with the Israelis, but Aziz will not get out in front on this issue. Respect for diplomatic relations with Israel was ingrained within the Mauritanian military. The Mauritanians continued to see the Israeli relationship as perhaps THE most important US foreign policy concern in Mauritania.

Following the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain’s recent normalisation of relations with Israel, analysts wondered which Arab state could be next to follow suit. Some journalists have speculated that it might be the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Due to factors related to Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy in the Maghreb and Sahel, there’s good reason to consider this possibility. Abu Dhabi can leverage its financial resources to push more countries in the Sahel toward normalising ties with Israel so that the UAE is less isolated on the normalisation issue.

Algeria is a geopolitical force that has historically maintained influence in Mauritania and which does not want its neighbours moving closer to Israel. Yet with major economic problems at home, Algeria was looking more inward while lacking the means to influence Mauritania as Algiers had around 2015.

Mauritania would have to deal with the possibility of blowback if the country signs an accord with Tel Aviv. Elements within Mauritania’s political arena would probably be very opposed to an unfreezing of relations. A 2008 incident in which gunmen fired at the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott underscored how issues related to Israel/Palestine can fuel violence in Mauritania.

Additionally, numerous protests against Israel also took place in the northwestern African country during the 11 years in which Nouakchott had official diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Mauritanian officials cannot ignore these past episodes when assessing all the risks of unfreezing relations with the Jewish state.

A rapprochement between Nouakchott and Tel Aviv would be welcome in Israel as well as the UAE. A major reason why has to do with the possibility of a “domino effect” resulting in Mali, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, and/or other Maghrebi/Sahelian governments quickly lining up to follow the UAE and Bahrain’s lead in working to integrate Israel into the wider Islamic world’s diplomatic fold.

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Page last modified: 06-09-2021 11:50:57 ZULU