The historic visit to Israel by Chadian President Idriss Déby has revealed the behind-the-scenes ties between the two countries, especially over the past decade. Chad, a Sunni Muslim country that lies in a strategic location in the heart of Africa neighboring Libya and Sudan, was pressured by Libya into cutting ties with Israel in 1972.
For Chad, defense is the most important element of relations with Israel. In recent years, it has been dealing with the radical Islamist terrorist threats posed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and groups linked to the Islamic State group.
Despite the end to its civil war and reduced tensions with Sudan, Chad is still battling rebels in its north. According to foreign reports, Israel has already aided Chad in this fight.
Like most African countries that have strengthened ties with Israel, Chad, a poor desert nation, is also interested in Israel’s advanced water and agricultural technology, particularly when it comes to Lake Chad, which has been shrinking since 1960 and is in danger of drying up entirely. Today, the lake comprises only 5 percent of its original area.
Chad’s decision to renew ties was influenced by Israel’s flourishing diplomatic relations with moderate Sunni countries. Chad doesn’t want to be left behind and probably wants to take advantage of Israel’s close ties with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. But while it is cooperating with the United States on fighting terrorism, the Americans are keeping their distance from the African country. In September 2017, the administration included Chad on a list of countries whose residents are barred from visiting the United States.
The Jewish state’s renewed ties with Chad are the fruit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy of the last decade: “Israel is returning to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel.” Netanyahu has elected to approach Africa in an attempt to change the traditionally hostile stance of the African nations towards Israel in international forums, as well as a response to Iranian attempts to gain a foothold on the continent.
In the past two-and-a-half years, Netanyahu has visited Africa three times, including a historic visit to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Liberia in June 2017. During that visit, Netanyahu became the first non-African leader to address the Economic Community of West African States, a third of whose members are Muslim states. In July 2016, Israel renewed ties with Guinea. A year later, Netanyahu and the president of Mali, a Muslim country, agreed to closer bilateral relations.
Israel also benefits from stronger ties with Chad. Chad officially recognizing the renewal of relations with Israel will contribute to Jerusalem’s growing ties with Sunni Muslim states. Another advantage lies in Chad’s presidency of the African Union (until recently Déby served as head of the African Union), a role that gives it prestige and political power and could help bring Israel into the organization as an observer nation.
When it comes to intelligence, Israel can also benefit from the role Chad plays in the peacekeeping forces in Africa and its military action against radical Islam. The renewed ties could also help check Iran’s presence and influence on the continent.
Omer Dostri is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.