"We need you to call Israel."
A few weeks ago, a friend who works in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) called me up and spoke those very words. It was 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Toronto, where I live.
My friend works as a reporter in Dubai, the UAE's commercial capital. I met her while I worked from late 2004 until June for a newspaper located there. She had read reports about how Israel is supposed to have opened up a secret diplomatic mission in Dubai, with the approval of the UAE government.
Given the overt hostility expressed by the Gulf Arab states towards Israel, this story, if true, signaled a major policy shift. My friend wanted to try to get a comment from an Israeli government representative for her story.
The international dialing code for Israel is 972. The dialing code for the UAE is 971. They are close neighbors, at least in the phone book, if not by geography. Yet you cannot dial Israel directly from Dubai, my friend said. The UAE telephone monopoly won't allow it.
I agreed to help my friend and make a call. I got on the Internet and found one of the Israeli newspaper articles about the alleged Israeli presence in Dubai. I emailed the Israeli reporter who wrote the story, explaining the situation. He emailed me back a few minutes later minutes and passed along some phone numbers for the relevant Israeli Foreign Ministry's press representatives. He said they were not likely to give an official comment, but encouraged me to try.
Later, I called the Ministry. The official I spoke to was a bit surprised initially -- I don't imagine Dubai-based papers seek his opinion regularly. I think he may have wondered if I was a deranged prank caller.
I wish I could say I was rewarded with some dramatic revelation, but all I got was a curt remark: "I definitely cannot comment." I then emailed that response back to my friend. A few days later, the UAE government, through its official press agency, denied the story.
The Israeli newspapers have tried to keep the story alive. The UAE papers cannot do this as easily, for a variety of reasons including official censorship and fears about the heavy hand of the state security services.
Will the UAE ever have normal relations with Israel? Perhaps sooner than we think. The UAE, like other Gulf Arab states, is eager to sign a free trade deal with the United States. The U.S. has already negotiated a similar deal with Bahrain, under which that country must loosen its anti-Israel trade restrictions.
The lure of freer access to U.S. markets proved so alluring to the Bahrainis that they gave in to U.S. pressure to ease up on Israel. The UAE will similarly have to moderate its anti-Israel stance if it wants to sign a deal. Greed will trump politics, as it usually does -- call it the economic version of the domino effect. As Arab states enter the global economy and accept its rules, they will be forced to re-think their stance towards the neighbor they can scorned for so long.
When we think of the Arab-Israeli conflict, what comes to mind is mostly from TV shows. We recall images of Palestinian rioters throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, or imams sermonizing against compromise with the "Zionist enemy."
From now on, I will always think of the numbers 972 and 971, and marvel at how two countries so close together can be so far apart.