This blog has written on the erosion of the Mauritania-Israel relationship before. This week Mauritania severed its relations with Israel formally after recalling its ambassador and taking on a brutal public rhetoric over a year ago. The move is significant in that it is a part of a broader trend in Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s foreign policy; this has been to adopt a rough posture on a number of hot issues in hopes of gaining the support of more consequential powers. It has domestic and international dynamics and can be seen as basically pragmatic, though many debate how impolitic it might be. It has nothing to do with settlements or Avigdor Lieberman or such things; it does have to do with political squabbles inside Mauritania and the diplomatic fallout from the August 2008 coup.
The immediate domestic context has to do with three factors: (1) President Ould Abdel Aziz’s shaking popularity, a result of economic woes and his political style; (2) his handling of criticism on the anti-terror law, which has led him to denounce his opponents as “pro-terrorist,” causing them great offense and the supreme court’s declaration that the law is unconstitutional has also got him riled up; and (3) opposition push back, led by Messaoud Boulkheir who attacked the president on the Israel card which has frequently been raised as one of Ould Abdel Aziz’s “accomplishments”. Since diplomatic ties with Israel were never fully cut, merely frozen, this offered an opportunity for the opposition to badger the president. Thus the president moved to block Boulkheir’s point by formalizing (or “confirming” to use the Foreign Minister’s words) the break. These are developments over the past week or so (Boulkheir raised the issue Thursday and the FM responded on Saturday) and they indicate much about where the political situation has gone. It shows the trivialization of the terrorism problem in public discourse (led by the government) and the extent to which the Israel issue is of minor importance given the developments since 2008.
Though some reports have given credit for the move to Tawassoul (notably Aljazeera Arabic, which ran a typically laudatory report doing just that while downplaying Boulkheir and the rest of the opposition), this misses the point. While the Islamist tendency helped to put the matter on the table in the first place, it has been largely out of their hands since last winter. In fact, the issue came to Ould Abdel Aziz’s attention only after Boulkheir went to Libya and Qadhdhafi raised the issue in relation to his opposition/support for the junta. And it was Boulkheir who demanded that the government clarify the status of Mauritania’s relationship with Israel (which led to the announcement that the relations were cut for good.)
Since the 2008 coup three important factors have come up that have been influential with respect to Mauritania’s Israel policy: (1) western aid cuts in response to the coup leaving the junta/government strapped for cash; (2) (successful) attempts by “radical” actors (e.g., Libya, Qatar, Iran) to leverage economic and diplomatic assistance in exchange for Mauritania’s support against Israel during the Gaza crisis in the winter of 2008/2009; and (3) the utility of anti-Israeli rhetoric in Mauritanian domestic politics for Ould Abdel Aziz, where general public sympathy for the Palestinians and distaste for Israel’s Gaza assault is strong and freezing and severing ties with Israel effectively shattered the Islamists’ (Tawassoul) most potent platform piece. Ex-president Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi had promised to put the relationship up to a popular vote in exchange for Tawassoul’s support in the run up to the constitutional crisis in the summer of 2008; he never got around to this because of the coup. This “broke the seal” on the issue, as the military had previously listed the relationship with Israel as a “red line” it would not allow to be crossed. Ould Abdel Aziz moved to co-opt public outrage over the Gaza War by taking up the issue so that Tawassoul could not (on that, see here and here). Since this process began in the late autumn of 2008 Mauritania has grown closer to Iran and Libya, especially in symbolic matters. The primary assumption driving Ould Abdel Aziz’s policy here is easily summed up by the Bard: “Goodness gracious the Paper! Where the cash at? Where the Stash at?”
The Israel issue is important to the United States because it was one of the bricks on which the countries’ close economic and political cooperation that began under Ould Tayya. Because all this went on outside of consultation with the Mauritanian people (relations were officially opened in 1999 and had its interests represented in Tel Aviv, via the Spanish embassy, from 1995; this was linked to both the Barcelona and Oslo processes), the relationship with Israel was easy prey for a demagogue. The great opportunity came during the Arab summit at Doha and the months that followed. The presidential campaign in the summer of 2009 was another that Ould Abdel Aziz cut a “shameful” relationship figured prominently in the his speeches and ads. In response to Mauritanian charges that his campaign had an anti-Semitic tinge, he responded: “this is an honor for us, for we are against Judaism” (ضد اليهودية). Much of this was cosmetic, playing a part for new foreign patrons. In the wider context this reveals that Ould Abdel Aziz and others consider the Israel issue to be marginal with respect to their relationship with America; it also shows how many now see the United States as of less relevance to Mauritania today than it was a year ago. Since the 2008 coup, American prestige in the country has declined for a whole series of reasons (for the opposition this has to do with the virtual acceptance of the junta last winter and spring and in government it is related to Ould Abdel Aziz having out maneuvered the US via Libya and Iran). The issue has been domesticated and at all times since 2008, the elite has treated the issue as a political football.
The move has made Mauritania’s relationship with Iran more valuable in Tehran; recall Ould Abdel Aziz’s visit to the Iranian capital where he acquired some taxi cabs and buses in exchange for his efforts in the counter-Zionist field. This was perhaps the first time many Iranians heard about another Islamic Republic called Mauritania. Iran has taken over the operation of a medical facility built by Israel and has praised the country’s new route. Before that, there was Ould Abdel Aziz’s appearance at the anniversary of Qadhdhafi’s coup in Tripoli. This would appear to have little impact on Mauritania’s relationship with the United States, which was strained by the 2008 coup but has been gradually rehabilitated under the Obama administration — partly by indifference and partly by concerns related to terrorism, although this is not a total development. The Economist put Mauritania’s case in the context of Iranian and Israeli competition for African allies; others put it between this and Libya’s ambitions in Africa. The reality is certainly somewhere between both, but mostly represents the priorities of the cash-strapped Ould Abdel Aziz government in relation to the western powers. When Libya, Qatar and Iran goaded the General to freeze his ties last winter they meant to evidence support for the radical position and embarrass Jordan and Egypt — the other (and now remaining) two “moderate” Arab states with full on relations with Israel. They got somewhat more than that: it irritated and perplexed the Europeans, Americans and Israelis. Mauritania has felt few direct consequences as a result of this and his anti-Israeli line seems merely to have compounded especially American perceptions of him as a clever nuisance.
Popular opposition to the relationship was a consensus issue, though many recognized its political utility in foreign affairs. The rise of terrorism in the last five years brought attacks on the Israeli embassy, which most saw as abhorrent, repugnant and destabilizing. But that did not mean that any great number of Mauritanians would miss the embassy if it shut down. Those displeased with the break see it as evidence of political extremism and caprice out of step with Mauritania’s traditionally pragmatic foreign policy. But others, also pragmatists, see it as a pragmatic move, perhaps ill considered, but necessary in its own circumstance. Whether the move opens more doors than it closes will be seen in coming months.