For a man who flew 12 hours the night before to Liberia, skirting the unfriendly skies of North Africa by flying the width of Europe over the Mediterranean and a quarter the length of Africa; who held separate back-to-back meetings of some 30-minutes each with 11 African leaders and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini; and who delivered the keynote address to an African sub-regional organization of 15 states, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed unusually relaxed on his flight home from Monrovia on Sunday evening.
Perhaps it was because there were only three journalists on the plane, perhaps because there were no government ministers he had to worry about, perhaps because the meetings in Liberia went well. Whatever the case, Netanyahu seemed relaxed and in a good mood. Such a good mood, that when he summoned the reporters to the first class cabin before take-off to brief them on his visit, he mentioned his mother, something he rarely does.
Netanyahu often talks about his brother, Yoni, who was killed at Entebbe, as well as about his late historian father. But he rarely speaks of his mother. Sunday night he did.
She is the one, he said affectionately, who pressed him to learn French when he was a 14-year old in Philadelphia, explaining where he learned the language with which he opened up his address in Liberia to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). His crash course in French came when he was recuperating from a broken foot he sustained in a wrestling match at Philadelphia’s Cheltenham High School against one Albert Betesh.
“Albert Betesh,” he said. “I’ll always remember that name.”
“Yeh, and look where he is today,” one reporter quipped. Netanyahu gave a slight grin. “Albert Betesh,” he repeated.
The prime minister stressed in his briefing that what was significant about his lightning visit to Liberia – he was on the ground for less than 12 hours – and his 20-minute address to ECOWAS was the very public nature of it.
ECOWAS is an international organization made up of nine Muslim majority countries, with three others having significant Muslim minorities. Twelve of the 15 ECOWAS states are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Two of the countries – Mali and Niger – don’t have diplomatic ties with Israel.
Yet the organization last December openly invited Israel’s prime minister to address it, and the heads of 12 of the 15 states openly went to the summit to meet him, an unusually high turnout for an ECOWAS summit. Only the president of Niger did not attend because of Netanyahu’s presence.
The president of Nigeria also did not attend, but that is because he has been hospitalized for the last several months in London – though the fact that his deputy also did not participate may be due to Netanyahu’s presence, and not wanting to give any more ideological ammunition to Boko Haram, the jihadist organization currently plaguing the country.
Benin’s president also did not attend, but not because he doesn’t like Netanyahu, rather – according to one African diplomatic official – because he doesn’t like conferences. He doesn’t go to any of them, the official said, “they bore him.”
What was more important than the message that Netanyahu brought to the conference – the now somewhat worn slogan about “Israel coming back to Africa, and Africa coming back to Israel” – is that it was not done behind closed doors, but rather very much out in the open.
Nor was this an ad hoc meeting of leaders – as was held last year when Netanyahu met with seven African leaders in Uganda. This was a meeting in the full light of day to an international organization representing 320 million Africans, a significant sub-regional group.
In the “class picture” taken at the end of the summit of all the leaders there, Netanyahu is seen smiling in the center of the front row, with all the African leaders around him. The EU’s Mogherini was in the row behind him, toward the end of the row, looking almost like an afterthought. Netanyahu’s appearance at the summit, as the picture represented, was central and for all of Africa to see.
And that is a change. The public nature of the conference with so many leaders of Muslim states gives ties with Israel greater legitimacy, diplomatic officials explained afterward. If the president of Mali can meet publicly for 30 minutes with Netanyahu, without these two states having diplomatic relations, then the president of Muslim-majority Guinea and its neighbor Guinea-Bissau can cooperate with Israel and accept its assistance, without feeling as if they were crossing some unspoken Muslim picket line.
By stressing the public nature of this meeting, Netanyahu – who speaks often but only in vague terms about discreet ties Israel is conducting with Arab states in the region – made it clear on his plane from Liberia that the public nature of diplomatic ties is more preferable. This changes the atmosphere, creates momentum, produces a positive dynamic. Though African Muslim states are now willing to do this, the Arab world remains much less inclined – but going public is the ideal.
This is also one of the reasons why American Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley was greeted almost as a conquering hero in Israel this week on her first visit to the country.
Netanyahu praised her for simply “telling the truth” and for having “uncommon common sense.” President Reuven Rivlin said that, because of her, Israel is “no longer alone in the United Nations” and Israel is “no longer the UN’s punching bag.” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely gave her a golden necklace as a token of Israel’s appreciation for publicly standing up for it in the world body.
What has endeared Haley to Israel and its supporters abroad – she was greeted with a thunderous reception at the AIPAC conference in March, and seemed genuinely embarrassed by the reaction – is the public and unapologetic nature of her defense of Israel.
For instance, this week she went to Geneva to publicly slam the UN Human Rights Council for its double standards and obsession with Israel, threatening a US withdrawal if the body does not change its biased ways.
In April, as she chaired the UN Security Council, she called on the body during its monthly session on the Middle East to stop becoming an “Israel-bashing session” and to turn instead to the real threats in the region: Syria, Hezbollah and Iran.
In March she was instrumental in getting a UN agency to retract a scurrilous report co-authored by virulently anti-Israel Richard Falk that concluded that Israel met the definition of apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination” by one racial group over another.
And in February, following her very first meeting in the Security Council, she met the press and said that the US “will not turn a blind eye” to the UN’s Israel-bashing anymore.
That all set a refreshing, new tone. Until the Obama administration enabled the passage of the anti-settlement UN Security Council resolution 2334 in December, it too provided diplomatic cover for Israel in various UN forums. But, according to Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, it did not do so as publicly or as vocally as Haley.
Indeed, sometimes it did so apologetically, as was the case when then ambassador Susan Rice vetoed a Security Council Resolution in 2011 that condemned the settlements, but then – in her explanation for the vote – slammed Israel’s settlement policies.
“Atmosphere matters in the UN,” Danon said, adding that Haley’s style – both the public and vocal manner in which she defends Israel – sets an important tone and makes a difference. Likewise, the very public nature of Netanyahu’s appearance at a conference before 15 African leaders is as significant as what was said in a slew of private meetings at that conference. The public reception of the prime minister itself was the message.
Israel needs public displays of affection, with the rationale being that hugs can be contagious. If one country sees another country embracing Israel, it is more likely to do so itself. And if the US ambassador to the UN publicly and often, loudly and unapologetically, defends Israel at the world body, it has a trickle down effect on other countries as well, especially those that desire a close relationship with the US.