Tennis Diplomacy in the Gulf: No Love Match

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Shahar Peer

At first glance, the decision by United Arab Emirates officials not to grant Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer a visa to compete in the Dubai Tennis Championships, a tournament she qualified for, may seem like another example in the never-ending stream of petty tit-for-tat retributions that have been as much a part of the 60-year Arab-Israeli conflict as wars and upheavals. Though the U.A.E. justified the blocking of Peer's visa as a measure taken to protect the player herself from demonstrators and growing anti-Israeli sentiment in the Emirates, the move is widely seen in Israel as a public — and pointless — rebuke in response to the Israeli military incursion into Gaza earlier this year. The Women's Tennis Association has reprimanded the Emirates for politicizing the sporting event and is considering canceling future events in the country. (See pictures of the world's top tennis players.)

But the Dubai tennis tiff could very well be just the beginning of a serious downward spiral in diplomatic relations between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. After years of gradually easing tensions following the Camp David accords, Israel's relations with even moderate Arab countries have become increasingly brittle since the Gaza conflict and could easily worsen. (See pictures of Gaza border tension.)

At the moment, however, the Arab League's current boycott of Israel is a shadow of what it was when it started in 1948 — when all its members banned Israeli goods, banned companies that did business with Israel, banned Israeli passport holders and even travelers with Israeli stamps in their passport. Currently three Arab countries — Jordan, Egypt and Mauritania — have relations with Israel. Almost all the members of the Arab League have dropped the ban on companies that do business with Israel. And behind the veneer of official disapproval, several take a live-and-let-live attitude toward the Jewish state. In particular, Gulf countries such as the Emirates have tried to balance their allegiance to the Arab cause with developing themselves as modern, global centers for trade and tourism. Indeed, recently they've begun to allow Israelis to participate in sporting events on their soil. Last year, Peer, currently the 48th-ranked professional woman player in the world, competed in Doha, Qatar, becoming the first Israeli to be part of an officially sanctioned tennis tournament in the Arabian peninsula.

No doubt the mercantile princes of the Gulf would love nothing more than to continue with business as usual. But ever since the war in Gaza, moderate Middle Eastern governments are coming under increasing pressure from their own people to take a harder line against Israel. Egypt, which supported Israel's Gaza incursion by shutting its border crossing into the Strip, has become so sensitive to criticism of its role that it is jailing Egyptian anti-Israel protesters. Mauritania withdrew its ambassador to Israel. Jordan's King Abdullah summoned and rebuked the Israeli ambassador in the midst of the crisis. And Turkey — a non-Arab but predominantly Muslim state with close ties to Israel — withdrew its sponsorship of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria.

With Israeli politics shifting to the right since the Gaza incursion, the Jewish state may find itself even more isolated within the region. One sign of how badly the peace process has gone off track is the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Is Our Home"), who has called for Israeli Arabs to take loyalty oaths or have their citizenship revoked. After Israel's inconclusive election earlier this month, Lieberman's party may control the seats in parliament necessary for the larger parties to form a government. If politicians like Lieberman start gaining a larger platform for their extremist views, Israeli passports may become even more radioactive. (See a video on Lieberman's role in Israel.)

Read a story about the world's No. 1 men's tennis player, Rafael Nadal.

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