Of immediate interest to many Western readers may be that, for a few reasons, Mauritania’s diplomatic relations (c. 1999) with Israel are coming under serious fire. Since Israel began its massive assault on Gaza, killing hundreds, Mauritania has seen large street demonstrations against the offensive, like other Arab countries. These protests have been more intense in Nouakchott because of the country’s relations with Israel: Mauritania is one of three Arab states with full, normal diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. This has always been to the displeasure of the country’s Islamist movement, led by Tawassoul (the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), as well as others. When Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi ran for president, he gained that party’s support by promising to put diplomatic ties with Israel, which were imposed under the deposed Ould Taya, up to a vote. He never did. After he was overthrown, the junta has made appeals to popular sentiment by dangling the possibility of holding a referendum on the issue.
So two factors have converged at the moment: (1) The historical nature of the ties and their treatment by the leadership class, in recent times especially, has made the Israel relationship negotiable in public discourse. The relationship with Israel was undertaken by an unelected dictator in a country removed from the Palestinian problem but where the general sentiment is quite sympathetic and where the growing Islamist movement has made this issue a cardinal point in its platform. The ties have been controversial in recent years: Attacks have been attempted on the Israeli embassy, previously and recently, and General Abel Aziz has raised the issue to rile the masses in his efforts at angling to run for president when presidential elections are held in the near future. Mauritanian students in Senegal, Morocco and elsewhere are joining the pro-Gazan demonstrations. More importantly, opposition leaders, notably Ahmed Ould Daddah, have called for cutting ties in light of the massive Israeli attack on Gaza. Even the Commissioner of Human Rights has said that if he were elected president, he would cut ties. (2) There is now definite political capital to be had or to be lost. The Gaza offensive has intensified these issues and has raised the stakes for the junta, should it decide to cut relations. Throughout the post-coup period, the option of cutting Israel ties has popped up and receded quickly, always with a populist bent in mind. This was during a dry period in the Conflict. Now that the matter has gone “hot” the discussion is undoubtedly more heated and more sincere. The bulwark against cutting ties is that these ties mark a kind of red-line in Mauritania’s security and economic relations with the Western powers, especially the United States. The junta has no desire to take measures that would directly irritate the United States, or the Europeans (beyond what it’s already done). Hence, Abdel Aziz’s measured comments on the issue. It is said that the Libyans and some of the Gulf Arabs have offered the Mauritanians vital financial assistance in exchange for breaking off relations with Israel.
With this in mind, some believe that Abdel Aziz may announce the severance of Mauritania’s ties with Israel at the upcoming Arab summit. The benefit here could help the junta circumvent Algeria’s attempts to isolate it in the African and Arab settings — if the junta can win the Gulf Arabs, it will not be long before it is accepted as being “normal”. Libya has a relatively strong hand in Africa, and can turn some wheels if it wants to.
If support for the junta becomes an issue of Algeria and friends (namely Syria, and a couple of others) opposing and Morocco and Gulf supporting it, the problem could be sucked into the broader Arab fault lines between Syria and the “moderate” Arabs (the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan, etc.). This would frustrate Algeria’s strategy, especially given its relatively close historical ties with Syria and more recent ones with Iran. This is unlikely, though, given Mauritania’s low profile regarding those matters. It is almost certain that Libya has made these kinds of offers: It is less clear that the pro-Western Gulf states have, and probably unlikely. The Gulf Arabs might avoid supporting the junta if it is seen as a Libyan ally. Still more problematic is that if Mauritania breaks its Israel ties, the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis will all face great hurdles: It will empower the Hamas-Iran-Syria axis by embarrassing these “key” yet ever more irrelevant actors. It will not win the Mauritanians many rich friends, beyond Tripoli.
This said, as a result of the Gaza crisis, the junta has an opportunity to seize more agency over its regional position than Morocco or Algeria, who are running the terms of regional behavior towards the junta. The Palestinians, calling for Arab and global action to protest or stop the bombardment, would like to see at least one of the Arab states with relations with Israel to do something. Though likely ineffective, the symbolic nature of Mauritania breaking ties with Israel would be great. Egypt has been the target of much criticism because of its inability to accomplish anything prevent the onslaught, for its perceived complicity in the suffering in Gaza (because of its anti-Hamas/Iranian posture and acquiescence in Israel’s blockade of Gaza) and its effective alliance with Israel. This country, among the first to recognize Israel, has been able to use its relations with Israel to accomplish only the most limited of aims. One of Hosni Mubarek’s achievements has surely been to turn a nation of 70 million into a geopolitical pauper, incapable of projecting its influence into the Levant or elsewhere in times of crisis. Egypt cannot be counted on for bold moves. Neither can dusty Jordan, facing many of the same problems despite its relations with Israel.
Mauritania, a hungry country on the Atlantic, seldom an after thought in the Arab east, seems to be the only Arab country desperate enough to put its relations on the line. Or at least that is how some of the Arabs see it. The junta might be pushed that far by domestic demands (compounded by its own legal illegitimacy, forcing it to bow to populist demands) and the prospect of money and Libyan financial support. The very threat of a break could, as the junta sees it, frighten Israel into pressing the Americans to being more friendly to their ambitions. And the US, where presidential power is turning hands, might be less likely to “punishing” Mauritania for lack of time, given its financial issues and the dramas of its public personalities. The French no longer hold the EU presidency, and so Mauritania will probably be lower on the list of priorities. The time could be ripe and the benefits massive and risks low.
Or not. It still needs to behave itself so as not to make the Europeans and Americans even more grumpy, and it would be silly to think that the international community would be terribly impressed by bombast coming from anywhere in West Africa, beyond initial shock because of Mauritania’s traditional moderation. The Libya or some other rich Arabs might out due some Western countries in their promises, but it is unlikely that any Arab country has the ability to affect the financial situation in Mauritania to the degree that the international financial institutions and the Europeans and Americans can. The junta also wants international acceptance, which comes from the top down. Acceptance in the Arab sphere will not (necessarily) equate to acceptance in the Western one. The Americans have not changed their tenor on the junta and the response could be less than receptive. But the Mauritanians are skilled practitioners of Third World politics, and as they played the Arabs and Africans off the Americans and Europeans and the Chinese off of the Russians during the Cold War, they might just as well be able to the same today in pursuit of immediate concerns and goals. If a break does occur, the Israelis haven’t heard anything, and are “studying the situation.”
[ Local insight from readers in Mauritania is encouraged and welcomed. ]