Just hours after the first planeload of South Sudanese migrants was scheduled to take off from Ben-Gurion Airport late Sunday night, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will meet Monday afternoon with Cote d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara, who also has hundreds of nationals here in line for deportation.
Diplomatic officials, while acknowledging that the deportations have created an image problem for Israel in Africa and elsewhere, denied that the issue cast a cloud over Ouattara’s visit or ties with the west African country.
“The bottom line is that these people came here illegally and are being repatriated home,” one official said. “No one can complain.”
The official said that Netanyahu has for months discussed improving ties with Sub-Saharan Africa, including with Cote d’Ivoire, which is emerging from a disorderly transfer of power that included the killing of hundreds of people, and which almost hurtled the country into a new civil war.
In November 2010, Ouattara defeated the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo, who then refused to relinquish power and was eventually arrested by French special forces some five months later.
Israel, which had good ties with Gbagbo, a Christian, also maintained good ties with the Muslim Ouattara, an economist who spent five years as deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. There Ouattara worked with Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. Fischer greeted the Cote d’Ivoire president at the airport upon arrival Saturday night.
President Shimon Peres met Ouattara Sunday and hosted a luncheon for him at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
Cote d’Ivoire, beset by severe security and economic problems, is seeking Israel’s cooperation in speeding up its development.
At their meeting, Peres said he was the only person present old enough to remember the visit of Cote d’Ivoire’s first president Felix Houphouet- Boigny in 1962, when he signed a cooperation agreement with Israel.
Peres said Houphouet- Boigny was a great admirer of Israel’s development and technology, as is Ouattara.
Like the rest of Africa, Houphouet-Boigny – notwithstanding his close ties with Israel – cut off relations with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The ties were renewed in 1986.