Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a meeting of the West African trade bloc on Sunday as the Jewish state renewed its push for closer diplomatic, economic and security ties with sub-Saharan Africa.
“This is the first time they have invited the leader of a non-African country to address them,” Mr Netanyahu said prior to his speech in Liberia to the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas),
“Israel is returning to Africa in a big way.”
A potentially historic shift toward openly friendly ties with Israel could be consummated in October when Mr Netanyahu is scheduled to travel to Togo for an Africa-Israel Summit that is expected to involve 25 sub-Saharan African states, including Kenya.
The Israeli leader visited Kenya and Uganda last year in an initial attempt to ease Africa away from its virtually unanimous solidarity with the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
“As a result of my visit to East Africa we are now going to West Africa and my goal is to erode this majority, this great blocking majority of 54 African countries that is the basis of the automatic majority against Israel in the UN and other international bodies,” Mr Netanyahu told reporters last week.
Israel aims to use its technological and military prowess as leverage in achieving its diplomatic objectives in Africa.
Kenya has notably grown closer to Israel in the past few years. The two countries reportedly operate a joint counter-terrorism command centre in Mombasa where Israeli agents work with their Kenyan counterparts in seeking to thwart attacks by al-Shabaab.
Mr Netanyahu told the Ecowas meeting that Israel intends to establish two African trade hubs: one in the eastern half of the continent and one in the west. He did not specify their locations, but Nairobi would seem to be a likely choice for Israel’s East Africa trade mission, given the Kenyan capital’s role as the main conduit for outside investment in the sub-region.
But Israel’s path toward improved relations with sub-Saharan African states remains rocky.
The Jewish state angrily recalled its Senegal ambassador last year after the West African country co-sponsored a resolution in the UN Security Council demanding Israel halt its settlement activity in occupied Palestinian territories.
In a major setback for Israel’s Africa strategy, the resolution was approved 14-0, with the US abstaining and Angola joining Senegal in the majority on the 15-nation council.
That rift has since been mended. Israel announced on Sunday that it will return its ambassador to Dakar. The move followed a meeting between Mr Netanyahu and Senegalese President Macky Sall on the sidelines of the Ecowas conference.
But seven majority-Muslim countries in sub-Saharan Africa — Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Djibouti — are still refusing to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
In the run-up to the Ecowas meeting Morocco announced that its king would not join the gathering in Monrovia because of Mr Netanyahu’s invitation.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) criticised President Uhuru Kenyatta for visiting a Jewish settlement on the West Bank during his trip to Israel last year.
“Such behaviours boost the Israeli occupation and create a position of collusion between Kenya and the Israeli occupation,” senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement in February 2016.
The African Union (AU) should declare its opposition on affronts to the Palestinian Authority, Mr Ashrawi added.
In his speech to the Ecowas meeting, Mr Netanyahu urged that the AU restore Israel’s status as an observer state. Israel had been accorded that position by the Organisation for African Unity, the AU’s predecessor, but it was excluded in 2002 following the formal establishment of the AU.
Mr Netanyahu’s office announced on Sunday that Senegal had agreed to support Israel’s bid to regain observer status in the 55-nation grouping of all nations on the African continent.