Netanyahu is back from Chad but what has Israel gained from his visit?

Footage of Netanyahu meeting Chadian President Idriss Debby in N'Djamena is sure to feature in the elections campaign as Netanyahu will underline the strong relations Israel has forged during his tenure with China, India, Latin America and Africa.

January 20, 2019 11:27
4 minute read.

Netanyahu's Remarks Upon Departure to Chad, January 20, 2019 (GPO)

Netanyahu's Remarks Upon Departure to Chad, January 20, 2019 (GPO)


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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed safely in Israel late Sunday night following his return flight from his visit in Chad, Africa.

But what did Israel gain from formal diplomatic ties with Chad?

When countries like China and India express an interest, as they have in recent years, in significantly upgrading ties with Israel, questions are inevitably raised about what is in it for them.

It is clear why Israel wants improved ties with countries that are world powers with markets of well over a billion people. But why are these countries interested in ties with tiny Israel?

And the reply is always the same: security (arms, in the case of India), intelligence, technology and a pathway to Washington.

But with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Chad on Sunday to formally establish ties with the Central African country, this question needs to be reversed. It is clear what Chad – an impoverished, water-starved country engaged in a fight with Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area – wants from Israel. It wants arms and security expertise and intelligence. It wants to learn from Israel's experience about how to protect its borders. It wants to tap into Israel's technological expertise regarding water and agriculture. It wants improved ties with America.

But what does Israel get from Chad? Why is the establishment of relations with a dictatorial, landlocked, impoverished country that Freedom House has classified as the 18th-least-free country in the world so important that it necessitates Netanyahu taking 23 hours out of his busy election-season schedule to travel 16 hours to spend just seven on the ground in Chad.?

First of all, there is the political aspect. Footage of Netanyahu meeting Chadian President Idriss Deby in N'Djamena is sure to feature in the elections campaign as Netanyahu will underline the strong relations Israel has forged during his tenure with China, India, Latin America and Africa.

The African surge, however, has sputtered somewhat since Togo – under pressure from North African Arab countries – canceled a planned African-Israel summit in Togo in October 2017 just a few weeks before it was to begin. There was some talk of rescheduling it a few months later in Israel, but by then Jerusalem had lost some of its enthusiasm and its focus turned more and more to Latin America.

The Togo setback came after a couple of significant gains in Africa, including the seven-country summit Netanyahu held in Uganda in July 2016 as part of a four-country tour to Africa, the first by a sitting Israeli prime minister in some 29 years. This was followed quickly by the established of ties with Guinea, and a one-day visit by Netanyahu to Liberia in June 2017, where he met 10 African leaders at a summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

But then the Togo surprise cancellation hit and the momentum petered out. The visit to Chad will re-energize the African push.

This visit also sends a message that it is possible to decouple relations with Muslim states from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu has argued for months – especially in light of Israel’s much discussed cooperation with the Arab countries, including those with whom it has no formal ties – that following years after which it was thought that Arab and Muslim countries around the world would not deal with Israel until the Palestinian issues is solved, the reality is proving the opposite.

Netanyahu publicly visited Oman in November, even though the Palestinian conflict has not been resolved. Security cooperation with Egypt is at record levels, even though the conflict has not been solved. And Saudi Arabia is allowing planes to and from Israel fly over its airspace, even though the conflict is still not solved.

The establishment of ties with Chad – a Muslim-majority country that cut off relations with Israel 42 years ago under the influence of its neighbor, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi – illustrates a de-linking of Israel's ties with Muslim states from the Palestinian issue. If Chad can do it, then maybe the seven other Muslim Sub-Saharan states with whom Israel does not have diplomatic relations – such as Mali and Sudan – can do it as well.

Then there is the diplomatic aspect of the establishment of ties. The 54 African states make up an important bloc in  the 193-state UN. Neutralize the enmity of these countries, make it so they don't reflexively vote against Israel on every UN vote, and you chip away at the automatic majority the Palestinians have enjoyed for so long in the United Nations.

For instance, a month after Chad’s President Deby visited Israel in November, his country – which historically always voted against Israel at the UN – did not vote on a measure in December condemning Hamas, one that Chad would definitely have voted against in the past.

Chad joined fully half of all 54 African countries who did not vote for the Palestinians on a vote that they fought very hard for, a significant change in voting patterns.

There is also a strategic benefit to Israel in ties with Chad, as the country borders Libya and Sudan, giving Israel better capability of monitoring developments in both those countries.

Up until a falling out between Sudan and Iran in 2016, Sudan was an essential component of Iran’s ability to smuggle arms into Gaza, with an arms route going from Iran, to Port Sudan, to Egypt, and through tunnels into Gaza. That route has largely been neutralized, but it shows the importance of having a presence in Central Africa – a region that left unchecked could very much be used in ways inimical to Israel’s critical interests.

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