Israel expects to establish ties with Comoros, Maldives next — sources
After no new accords signed in 2021, Israel working toward agreements with Indian Ocean Muslim-majority nations, though no announcement is said to be imminent
Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter
The leading candidates to normalize ties with Israel next are the Muslim-majority island nations of The Comoros and Maldives, according to diplomatic sources.
The sources said there were ongoing contacts. However, there were no indications from diplomatic sources that an announcement was expected anytime in the near future.
The Comoros, a small archipelago in the Indian ocean, has never recognized Israel, but Israeli officials confirmed last October that the US had brought Comorian and Israeli officials together to discuss normalization.
The country initiated The Hague’s six-year engagement with the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2013, when it asked the ICC’s prosecutor to investigate the Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara three years earlier, during which troops clashed with pro-Palestinian activists.
The Maldives, on the other hand, once had diplomatic ties with Israel. Israel was the third state to recognize the island republic, and the Israeli ambassador was the first to present his credentials to the Maldives’ president. However, diplomatic relations were suspended in 1974.
Located in the Indian Ocean, the archipelago nation of roughly 330,000 inhabitants, spread across hundreds of islands, does not tolerate the public practice of any religion other than Islam and does not grant non-Muslims citizenship.
Relations began improving again in the 1990s. In 2009, then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman and his Maldivian counterpart signed three cooperation agreements in the fields of tourism, health, education and culture, as it appeared relations were again back on track. In 2010, Israeli ophthalmologists visited the country to perform eye operations.
The next year, the Maldives’ then-foreign minister, Ahmed Naseem, became the first senior official to visit Israel. During his four-day visit he met with then-president Shimon Peres and Liberman, laid a wreath at Yad Vashem and toured the country.
In 2012, Mohamed Nasheed — the island nation’s first democratically elected president, known for his pro-Israel stance — was deposed in what he calls a political coup. He was replaced by Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who vowed to appoint hardline Islamic conservatives to his cabinet.
In the wake of the 2014 Gaza war, the Maldives dissolved its agreements with Israel and voted to ban Israeli imports.
In 2020, Maldivian officials denied local reports they were in talks with Israel about reestablishing ties.
Biden on board
After the dramatic Abraham Accords announcements in 2020 about a series of Arab states normalizing relations with Israel, many expected the momentum to continue into 2021. However, with Naftali Bennett heading Israel’s government and Joe Biden in the White House, no further agreements have been signed to this point.
The jewels in the crown of the Abraham Accords would be Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, but neither nation is anywhere near a deal with Israel.
But conversations are still being conducted around normalization. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week discussed with senior Indonesian officials the possibility of the world’s largest Muslim country establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, although no immediate breakthrough was expected.
As late as the August meeting between Bennett and Biden, the US president avoided using the term “Abraham Accords.” In recent months however, the Biden administration has shown an increased interest in advancing the accords, as well as calling them by their name.
At an event marking the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, Blinken pledged that the administration would actively work to support and expand the growing diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab nations.
Blinken laid out three main lines of effort to support the agreements — fostering Israel’s ties with the UAE and Bahrain as well as Morocco, Sudan and Kosovo; deepening Israel’s existing relationships with Egypt and Jordan; and encouraging more countries to join the Abraham Accords.
However, pushing the accords, and the Middle East in general, does not appear to rank at the top of US priorities. Biden is dealing with exploding COVID numbers, inflation, and immigration on the domestic front, while the great power competition against Russia and China dominates the international agenda.
Israel, for its part, recognizes the importance of showing tangible success from existing accords, which would serve as an incentive for countries currently on the fence to sign normalization agreements as well. Part of that effort is completing the normalization process with Morocco and Sudan.
Morocco’s foreign minister was slated to visit Israel in late 2021 to open his country’s embassy in Tel Aviv, but had to postpone his trip because of the Omicron wave. The relationship with Rabat is on track and steadily progressing, according to diplomatic sources.
Sudan, however, is a different story.
As it did with other countries that established ties under the Abraham Accords, the Trump administration pressured Sudanese leaders to recognize Israel by dangling economic and diplomatic rewards for the move. While military leaders of the two-headed Sudanese government showed a willingness to move forward, civilian officials tried to pump the brakes on the process.
With severe political instability in Sudan, the country has far more pressing matters than moving forward on normalization.
“It doesn’t stand at the head of their priorities,” said Haim Koren, a former Israeli envoy to Egypt and South Sudan. “They have a series of problems they’re dealing with.