(January 21, 2019 / JNS) Beyond the history that was made in Chad on Sunday—a document was signed that renewed diplomatic ties between Israel and the African nation—the biggest achievement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Chad lies in the fact that the locals were proud that he visited, and that relations with Israel have been renewed.
Just like Netanyahu’s visit last year to Oman. Although his visit there did not lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations, the people there understood that relations with Israel were worthwhile and did not necessarily need to be a function of the peace process with the Palestinians.
This was Netanyahu’s fourth visit to Africa in two years. In our changing world, in which coalitions shift and interests prevail over sentiment, Netanyahu managed to raise a flag in a place that was closed to Israel not so long ago because of the imminent political “tsunami” that would recognize a Palestinian state, according to former Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Do you remember?
Some 50 years have passed since the historic visit by an Israeli prime minister (Golda Meir) in the capital of Chad. Israel always saw the importance of contact with Africa when it comes to a shared fate. (We, like the Africans, were under colonial rule.)
Despite the immense steamroller of pressure by the Arab League in the 1970s and 1980s, and the difficulties thrown up by the Palestinians and the Iranians today, the countries on the continent realized the advantage of relations with Israel. As such, they are taking off in recent years.
With all due respect to Iran and the Palestinians, neither has really given much to the countries in the region other than their contributions in fostering terrorism. Jihad has become one of the main problems in the countries of the Sahel region of Africa in general and in Chad in particular. And this is exactly why the ties with Israel are important for the locals.
“We expect Israeli aid in the field of agriculture,” Mahad, the editor in chief at a local television station who arrived at the airport with an extra-large team, told me. “Starting at 2 p.m. we will be running a special broadcast.”
All the local press representatives came to the airport for Netanyahu’s arrival. Three months ago, a new government took power in Chad. The new Minister of Security is Mahamat Abba Ali Salah, a retired general. He told me, “We are very happy that the prime minister of Israel has come. This is a desirable, public visit. It’s a fact that we are all here to welcome him.”
The country’s defense minister is on our side. He is also a member of the country’s Muslim majority, and he also sees great value in ties with Israel. Value and importance. They have no doubt that other countries will follow in Chad’s footsteps.
The head of media relations at the presidential palace tells me immediately after we land in the African country that his nation is waiting to sign a document reinstating diplomatic ties (which indeed happened), and mainly for fruitful bilateral cooperation. On water issues, as well. “That is our main problem,” he says. While the president of Chad met with Netanyahu, he came out to check on the accommodations for the teams waiting at the palace. “The plan includes renewed relations and the appointment of ambassadors,” he tells me.
The black heart of Africa
Chad is a large country, half of which is desert (the Sahara). It has many neighbors, each of which exports its own problems to Chad (Sudan, Libya, Niger, Nigeria.) Aside from its own insurgents, Chad has problems with the international jihadist group Boko Haram. Too many terrorist groups aspire to make Chad into a country that would live up to its epithet “the black heart of Africa.”
It’s no coincidence that the Americans used the Sahel for their special forces’ largest-ever drill in West Africa, and there is a reason western countries and the United Nations have decided to take part in building special armed forces devoted to battling terrorism in the region. Those forces include contingents from Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauretania, Mali and Chad.
America, under U.S. President Donald Trump, wants to be less active outside its own borders, but will not object to other countries taking part in the war on terrorism. France and Germany also maintain an anti-terror presence in the Sahel.
When people talk about hotbeds of terrorism, they think about Iraq or Afghanistan, but the place where U.N. peacekeeping forces have seen the heaviest casualties is Mali, Chad’s neighbor.
Israel can help Africa in a variety of areas, and we should keep our promises to do that. It could also give us the status of an observer in the African Union. South Africa strongly opposes that, but the new chairman of the UAN is Mussa Faki Mahamat, and he used to be prime minister of Chad. That could be helpful.
Making the desert bloom
When the ancient Greeks saw the Sahara Desert, they thought the sun had landed on the earth and turned the land into sand. Israel knows how to make a desert bloom and can help other countries develop the types of crops that will grow in areas that are generally barren.
Today, Israel’s success on the African continent is a global interest: There are 80 million people in the Sahel, and according to U.N. projections, by 2050 that number could reach 200 million. If the development of the Sahel were to fail, it could lead to another humanitarian crisis and mass emigration from Africa. So paradoxically, even Europe is praising Israel, for a change. Netanyahu’s successful visit is also a success for Europe.
His visit to Chad is interesting in general. The French newspaper Le Monde (remember, Chad was under French rule until it gained independence) reported that Netanyahu was making a historic visit to a country where 55 percent of the population is Muslim. The president of Chad described his visit to Jerusalem as “historic,” just like Netanyahu’s was on Sunday. Le Monde reports that after Chad, Israel wants to establish diplomatic relations with Mali and Niger. A local military officer is quoted saying that Israel and Chad had secret defense relations. “Now everything can be out in the open,” he said.
Chadian President Idriss Déby said exactly the same things when he addressed journalists at the signing ceremony with Netanyahu. All ties between Israel and Chad were severed in 1972, but now relations are possible—and not just secret ones.
A Le Monde analysis says the Israeli prime minister knows how to take advantage of friction between other countries to build new horizons that align with Israel’s interests. Because the Knesset election campaign is underway, the French journalist argues that Netanyahu will use his diplomatic achievements to secure success on voting day. We can assume that when it comes to diplomatic issues, he has a political advantage. What happened in Chad on Sunday was proof of that.
And on a personal note, I couldn’t help but be reminded on Sunday of the four years I spent in the Sahel as Israel’s ambassador to Mauretania, a role that contributed to Israeli foreign relations every day, but also improved the lives of millions of residents thanks to Israeli agricultural, water and health technology. Our ambassador to Chad won’t have it easy, but I can promise him or her a great deal of satisfaction and pride.
Boaz Bismuth is editor in chief of Israel Hayom.