News Analysis: Permafrost Begins to Melt in Israel’s Relations with Arab, Muslim Countries

As the Israeli-Palestinian peace process shows signs of progress, Israel is finding new diplomatic opportunities opening up with several Arab and Muslim nations.

Last week, Indonesia’s newly elected president reportedly stated that he favors dialogue with Israel.

Abdurrahman Wahid visited Israel a number of times to receive medical treatment, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. The newspaper also said he took part in a gathering organized two years ago by the Peres Center for Peace and visited the grave of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, does not have diplomatic ties with Israel. But the two countries have maintained contacts through intermediaries.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the general who last week toppled that nation’s democratically elected government reportedly assured Jerusalem he will not change the Muslim country’s policy toward Israel.

According to diplomatic sources cited by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Gen. Pervez Musharraf sent such a message to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s office via the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency.

Israel and Pakistan do not have diplomatic relations, but the two countries have been in regular contact through their representatives at the United Nations.

Barak’s office would not comment on the Ha’aretz report.

Another diplomatic possibility — involving Algeria — opened up over the weekend, when the president of the North African nation held talks with Israeli Cabinet ministers Shimon Peres and Shlomo Ben-Ami during a regional conference off the coast of Spain.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose country does not have diplomatic ties with Israel, told a reporter from the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot that Algeria would consider establishing ties with Israel only after arrangements are reached with Syria and Lebanon.

The new Algerian leader made headlines in July when he exchanged brief remarks with Israeli officials at the funeral of Morocco’s King Hassan II.

Bouteflika shook hands with Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the funeral — for which the Algerian president later apologized in interviews with the Arab media, charging that Barak had “ambushed” him.

Just the same, Bouteflika has apparently joined the growing club of world leaders who believe the way to U.S. foreign aid runs through Jerusalem.

“Bouteflika sends a message of peace,” Nawaf Masalha, Israel’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, told JTA this week. “If there is progress in the negotiations with Syria, Algeria will be the first to follow suit.”

Algeria’s neighbors — Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania — have long had diplomatic dealings with Israel.

Morocco mediated in the secret negotiations that led to the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977.

Low-level diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel were formalized in November 1994, when Israel opened a liaison office in the Moroccan capital, Rabat. Four months later, Morocco opened a similar office in Israel.

Relations between Israel and Morocco, which had cooled during the government of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have recently warmed.

Hassan’s successor, Mohammad VI — like King Abdullah of Jordan has done since the death of his father, King Hussein — is attempting to strengthen ties with the Jewish state.

Sam Ben-Shittrit, one of the leaders of the Moroccan community in Israel, returned full of enthusiasm from a visit last week to Morocco.

“I cannot overstate the treatment they gave me,” he told JTA, “I was interviewed on local television on prime time.”

Two years after Israel and Morocco took their first formal diplomatic steps, similar steps took place involving Tunisia.

In April 1996, Israel opened an economic interest office in Tunisia, and Tunis reciprocated the following month. Also in May of that year, Morocco’s southern neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, opened diplomatic offices in Tel Aviv.

When the peace process stalled under the Netanyahu government, Tunisia called back its representative in Israel.

Israeli representative Shalom Cohen remained at his offices in the Tunis Hilton hotel, almost in total diplomatic isolation.

But his patience ultimately paid off. Tunisia last month returned its emissary to Tel Aviv.

Diplomatic relations with the countries of North Africa are especially important because of Israel’s large population of North African emigres, who retain an emotional attachment to the countries where their families lived for centuries.

Italy recently tried to mediate and thaw relations between Israel and another North African country — Libya.

But Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, whose relations with the West improved considerably after he extradited earlier this year the two suspects wanted in connection with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbee, reportedly said that “the time was not ripe” for any moves toward Israel.

While new diplomatic initiatives open up for Israel, relations with the two Arab countries with which the Jewish state has signed formal peace treaties – - Egypt and Jordan — continue to vacillate with the ebb and flow of the peace process.

Egypt, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in March 1979, continues to have what has widely been described as a “cold peace” with the Jewish state.

With decades of distrust and hostility needing to be overcome, the normalization of relations between Israel and Egypt is a long and arduous process.

Just the same, reciprocal visits of businessmen and experts in various fields have become commonplace, and airline and bus routes operate daily between the two countries.

The Sinai Desert has become a prime Israeli tourist destination, but because of the cool diplomatic atmosphere — and sporadic terrorist incidents — fewer Israelis visit Cairo or other destinations within Egypt proper than in the years immediately after the signing of the peace treaty.

Israel’s relations with Jordan continue to have their share of ups and downs, but they are still warmer than with any other Arab country.

In the five years since the two countries signed a peace agreement in October 1994, many of the 16 articles on cooperation that were part of the agreement have not yet been implemented, such as a project to link Israel and Jordan with one electricity grid.

On the most crucial issue — water — Israel honors its commitment to supply Jordan with an annual 50 million cubic meters of water, despite its own water shortage.

But despite the difficulties, King Abdullah seems determined to develop relations with Israel.

“All depends on the peace process,” said Masalha, “As long as it flows, the Arabs will develop their contacts with us.”

But, he points out, Israel’s neighbors are no longer as enthusiastic as they were during the first heady days of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process under the government of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Now they no longer take things for granted, everything is more fragile.”

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