The story of Israel-Africa relations is largely a story of betrayal and neglect—or to put it more precisely, African betrayal and Israeli neglect in response to that betrayal.
In the early years after Israel’s founding, ties with African countries, and Chad in particular, flourished.
Many nations that had fought for their independence from colonial rule saw in Israel and its successful struggle against the British and the Arabs, as well as its agricultural and military achievements, a source of inspiration. Those countries sought to learn from Israel and worked to develop close ties with Jerusalem. Four African countries even had embassies in Jerusalem. From Israel’s perspective, Africa presented an opportunity to break the Arab political and economic blockade imposed on the Jewish state immediately following its establishment.
This love affair continued until the early 1970s, when the Arab states discovered the power of their oil. Under enormous pressure from the Arabs, who promised Africa generous financial aid, many African countries neglected and downgraded Israel ties.
In Chad’s case, this pressure proved to be effective prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when many African countries cut diplomatic ties with Israel. (Chad actually ended relations a year earlier, in 1972.) Neighboring Libya played a major role in Muslim-majority Chad’s decision to turn its back on Israel. For many years, Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi treated Chad like his country’s personal backyard and a center from which to expand Libya’s influence throughout Africa. He did this by using internal tensions among the country’s various ethnic and religious groups to his advantage.
Chadian President Idriss Déby’s visit to Israel and the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations are the culmination of Israel’s extensive efforts to court Chad, a country of much importance not only due to its geographical location in the heart of the African continent, but also due to the fact that it is a Muslim-majority country.
Renewed diplomatic ties had been on the table a decade ago, but were removed from the agenda as a result of pressure from Chad’s anti-Israel Arab neighbors, Libya and Sudan. This process, so important to the future of Israel’s ties with Muslim Africa, was made possible thanks to the fall of the Gaddafi regime and Libya’s decline in that country’s civil war, as well as the slow transformation of the Sudanese regime into a more moderate government, under the influence of, among other things, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.
It is quite possible that once Chad restores its relations with Israel, other Muslim-majority countries in Africa will follow.
Israel’s welcome return to Africa is made possible thanks to Jerusalem having finally decided to put an end its self-imposed political isolation. The truth must be said: Israel adopted a passive foreign policy that saw Jerusalem concentrate its efforts in convenient regions, including in particular the United States and Europe.
The recent improvement in Israel’s international standing, completely detached from the lack of progress on any “peace process,” has gotten Africa’s attention. As has always been the case, Israel has a lot to offer to Africa, and Africa has a lot to offer to Israel in return.
The weakening of the Arab world combined with Israel’s more active diplomatic approach opens up new horizons to Israel in Africa and greater cooperation with European countries, who have finally come to realize that in order to keep millions of African migrants from flooding their borders, they must first help Africa solve Africa’s problems.
Eldad Beck is an Israeli journalist and author.