Small Favors

Jewish Light Editorial

While the soft purr of the backchannel diplomatic engine rarely gets the media treatment of the alarming terror on Jerusalem streets, Israeli governmental officials continue working to build bridges in the region. Given the awful treatment accorded Israel in the region, it is impressive that its leaders are willing to do so at all, but the long-term potential is surely worth it.

A recent example of that thankless work is the announcement that Israel is opening a diplomatic-level mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The head of the Israeli legation is reported to be diplomat Rami Hatan.

Having relations with an international agency that happens to be located in the UAE might seem like small potatoes, but given the paucity of diplomatic ties Israel has in the region — Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab nations with which Israel has formal diplomatic relations — the addition is significant.

This is how difficult and how painfully slowly diplomatic negotiations can proceed: Back in 2009, Israel was represented at the international conference that founded IRENA. Israel chose at that time to support UAE instead of Germany as the location for the group’s headquarters.

Six years, or more than half a decade later, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold reportedly visited Abu Dhabi last month, the first time that an Israeli government official of his diplomatic rank has publicly made a visit. The agreement with Israel on a mission to the agency ensued.

While we in no way condone the continued reticence, and often hatred, shown by Middle Eastern nations in their dealings with Israel, this kind of slow-motion unfolding of events is hardly unusual in diplomatic affairs. And even in the wake of the announcement, representatives of both sides made clear that this is not an awakening of traditional diplomatic channels between the countries.

“We only have an accredited diplomat to represent Israel at IRENA,” Emmanuel Nahshon, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Al Jazeera. “(The) representative will be a resident diplomat in Abu Dhabi with IRENA only.”

The UAE statements were just as cautionary and limiting as the Israeli ones. The UAE’s foreign ministry issued a cautionary press release clarifying that the new mission “does not signify a change in policy toward Israel.”  The spokesman added that the Israeli mission will “deal exclusively with matters relating to the (IRENA) and would not represent any change in the position of the UAE or its relations with Israel.”

Still, some movement is better than none. According to Reuters and others, Gold hailed the agreement, which would be the first such move with a member nation of the League of Arab States since the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994.

“Israeli diplomacy must find different ways to advance Israeli dialogue in the region,” added Gold. “While this is an Israeli delegation to an international organization that sits in Abu Dhabi, we hope that this development will serve as a source of inspiration to others in the  Arab world.”  

Gold’s comments also referred to signs of a growing warming of relations between Israel and moderate Arab states as seen in articles in various Persian Gulf newsletters, including in Kuwait.

Some of this may reflect the “enemy of my enemy” thinking that seems to be pervading at least some governments across the region. With the threat of ISIS looming, and the desire by Iran to flex its nuclear and terror-sponsor muscle, Israel may seem a less adversarial foe to the so-called moderate regimes than it has in years past.

For those skeptical of that view, keep in mind that despite that diplomatically worded disclaimer coming from the Abu Dhabi government, the agreement also stipulates that the UAE would not expel the Israeli representative from the nation in the event of conflict with Gaza, or similar incidents. That statement is at least a hint that the UAE (which has accepted the presence of Israeli athletes for international games in the past) may have moved towards a pragmatic stance toward the Jewish State. If so, this action may serve as a harbinger of moderate Arab states willing to act favorably toward Israel if to do so serves their own enlightened self-interest.

Amidst the dark clouds that hover above the entire Middle East and the ongoing violence by Palestinian terrorists in Jerusalem, it is reassuring when even a seemingly small Silver Lining appears in the grim Middle East diplomatic Playbook.