The Islamic Republic of Mauritania and Israel – Dr. Arye Oded
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania and Israel
By Arye Oded
RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 3 (2015), Number 6 (July 2015)
Mauritania is a member of the Arab League and almost all its inhabitants are Muslims. The country’s official name is “The Islamic Republic of Mauritania.” About a third of Mauritania’s Muslims are of Arab origin, light-skinned and Arabic-speakers (“Moors”). The rest are different black African ethnic groups. Israel succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations with Mauritania and she regarded this as an important political achievement in Africa, specifically, and in the Arab-Muslim world, in general.
The reasons leading Mauritania to establish diplomatic relations with Israel were domestic and external. Diplomatic relations were established during the period of President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya who seized power in a military coup in December 1984. Taya worked to advance democracy in the country and in 1991 Mauritania passed a new constitution, which set out elections for government institutions and a multi-party regime. In elections in 1991, Taya was elected president and again for a second time and, in 2003, for the third time. Taya fought against extremist Muslim groups who, claiming that he was not carrying out Islamic law, worked against his regime. Other groups, students and intellectuals, claimed that Taya was, in fact, behaving like a dictator, harming civil rights and putting down the opposition by force and with arrests. Among other things, Taya prohibited political sermons in mosques. In his foreign policy, Taya drew closer to President Saddam Hussein of Iraq at the beginning, and supported him in the first Gulf War. Following this, the United States and Western countries stopped giving aid to Mauritania.
Over time, relations between Taya and Saddam Hussein weakened and Taya accused Saddam of supporting the extremist Muslim groups trying to undermine his regime. Several hundred Mauritanians were accused of spying for Iraq and arrested and the Iraqi ambassador was expelled from the country. In order to strengthen his economic and political position, Taya turned to the United States and the West. The US viewed Mauritania as an important country in the war against Islamic terrorism and established a base there, as part of a chain of footholds in Africa, and trained tens of Mauritanian intelligence officers.
This closeness to the US and the West also influenced President Taya’s relationship with Israel, from which he anticipated receiving assistance in agriculture and medicine. Mauritania expected that Israel could help improve Mauritania’s image in Western countries. Only in 1981 did Mauritania officially abolish slavery, and elements in the United States and the West contend that, in fact, slavery continues to exist there. In 1995, during an international conference in Barcelona, Spain helped to organize a meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and the Mauritanian foreign minister. At this meeting (on 27 November 1995) it was agreed to establish relations at the level of “Interests Officer.” Israel sent out a diplomat who opened an office in the capital Nouakchott, under the auspices of the Spanish embassy, and a Mauritanian envoy was located in Tel-Aviv. The same month, the Mauritanian foreign minister visited Israel to take part in the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin and, in October 1998, the minister came again and handed Prime Minister Netanyahu a message from the Mauritanian president welcoming the Wye Agreement between the Palestinians and Israel.
The influence of the United States on the progress of Israel-Mauritania relations was clearly shown when the two foreign ministers were invited to Washington and, in the presence of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, an agreement was signed, on 27 October 1999, to establish full diplomatic relations and to raise the level of representation to that of embassy. During the ceremony, in order to show that Mauritania was not neglecting the Arab and Palestinian issue, the Mauritanian foreign minister emphasized that his country supported a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East, that would ensure the full rights of the Palestinians and the return of Arab land occupied in 1967. Mauritania repeatedly stressed this point at every opportunity. (1)
The announcement of the setting up of an embassy gave rise to a storm of criticism in Mauritania and the Arab world. Extremist Muslim elements organized protest demonstrations against president Taya and the Arab League denounced the step. Some Arab countries headed by Libya, Iraq and Syria demanded that Mauritania be expelled from the Arab League and Libya even withdrew her ambassador from Nouakchott. The Mauritanian government responded to the protests by announcing that a sovereign country decided on its own foreign policy and recalling the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt, and with Jordan. (2) At the outbreak of the second intifada (uprising), when Niger broke off diplomatic relations with Israel again, and Tunisia and Qatar withdrew their representatives from Tel-Aviv, pressure on Mauritania grew to follow Niger’s example. The Mauritanian government rejected these pressures and even sent her foreign minister for talks with Israeli leaders in May 2001. During his visit, the minister met with President Moshe Katzav, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and government ministers. At a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Mauritanian minister said that the purpose of his visit had been “to promote peace in the Middle East and that his country had made it clear to the Palestinians that negotiations were the only path to peace in the region.” In reaction, the Palestinian Authority announced that it was asking the Arab League to expel Mauritania from its ranks and, in Israel, Arab Member of Knesset Talab a-Sanaa demanded that the Arab League punish Mauritania for the visit which, according to him, “encourages Israeli aggression” (3). The secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, settled for an announcement criticizing the visit (4). The condemnation of Taya intensified when Abd al-Rantisi, the leader of Hamas (a Palestinian Muslim extremist group), was killed by the Israeli Defence Forces. In Mauritania, leaders of opposition parties, led by extremist Muslim elements, published an announcement saying that, “the logical response of the Mauritanian government to the terrorist action of Israel is the severance of ties”. Students took part in protest demonstrations throughout the capital, calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, but the regime intervened and dispersed the thousands of demonstrators who had got near to the Israeli embassy building (5). In the years 2003-2004, President Taya survived three assassination attempts, carried out by those opposed to his links with Israel and the United States and his support for the US invasion of Iraq, and accusing his regime of being dictatorial.
To show Mauritania the importance of its links with Israel and to strengthen them, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom made an official visit to the country in May 2005. The minister took the opportunity to inaugurate a hospital and a cancer research centre which Israel established in the capital Nouakchott. At a press conference at the end of his visit, the foreign minister stressed that Mauritania could be a bridge to bring Israel closer to Muslim countries and that Israel wanted to strengthen political cooperation and increase her technical assistance. (6) Before and during the visit, extremist Muslim circles and opposition parties in Mauritania organized protests and disturbances involving thousands of people and directed against Israel. In the riots, Israeli flags were burnt and placards were brandished demanding the severance of relations with Israel.
On 3 August 2005, a military coup was staged in Mauritania by Colonel Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, head of the security services. He explained his move as opposition to the dictatorship of president Taya, who found asylum in Niger. The African Union sharply criticized the coup and suspended Mauritania’s membership, on the principle of non-recognition of military coups and the seizure of power by force. The United States also condemned the coup. Only after the coup-leaders committed themselves to holding democratic elections within two years, did the Africa Union rescind its sanctions against Mauritania. The United States also changed its position and recognized the new regime, when Colonel Vall declared that links with the US would continue and that he would establish a democratic government.
Links with Israel were not harmed as a result of the coup. After the establishment of diplomatic relations, Israel had tried to bolster relations with Mauritania as it is a Muslim country and a member of the Arab League. Apart the hospital Israel built, students came to Israel to follow courses in different subjects, experts were sent to Mauritania to develop date plantations, and “eye camps” were run by Israeli doctors, who restored the sight of hundreds of local inhabitants. In addition, members of the Israeli Knesset visited Mauritania.
In March 2007, democratic elections were held in Mauritania and Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi was elected president. He continued his predecessor’s foreign policy in everything concerning relations with the United States and Israel. On 8 August 2008, there was another failed military coup in Mauritania.
After Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which began on 27 December 2008, domestic and foreign pressures on Mauritania to cut off her ties with Israel grew and, in February 2009, she withdrew her ambassador from Israel and, in March 2009, Israel closed her embassy in Nouakchott.
- For example, the joint statement of the presidents of Mauritania and Ghana at the end of the Mauritanian president’s visit to Accra in 1998. See Horizons (Mauritania), 7 Aug. 1998
- Tishrin (Syrian government newspaper), 28 Oct. 1999
- Ha’Aretz (Israel), 24 May 2001
- International Herald Tribune, 29 May 2001
- Ha’Aretz, 20 April 2004
- Kol Israel Radio, Reshet Bet, 4 May 2005