Monrovia, Liberia – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed here early Sunday morning to be the first Israeli leader to take part in a summit of leaders from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The Israeli leader was greeted at the airport in a colorful ceremony by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The national anthem was played and Netanyahu was welcomed with traditional African dances.
Netanyahu told reporters on his plane that the purpose of the visit was to strengthen Israel's rapidly growing ties with Africa, and to chip away at the once reflexive anti-Israel voting patterns
of African countries in international forum.
Netanyahu said that he hoped the meeting would also lead to a reconciliation with Senegal. Senegal was among the countries that sponsored the anti-settlement UN Security Council resolution 2334 in December, and as a result Israel downgraded its relations with Dakar and recalled its ambassador.
The prime minister told reporters that Israel will name an ambassador to ECOWAS, who will be based in Israel's embassy in Nigeria.
Israel currently has 20 diplomats at 10 embassies in Africa, with Netanyahu saying, "we do a lot with a little." Netanyahu said last year during his visit to Africa that he wanted to open up more representations on the continent, but that has not yet come to pass.
Sources close to Netanyahu denied the Moroccan foreign Ministry's claim that King Mohammed VI, who wants to gain admittance for his country to ECOWAS, did not attend the summit because Netanyahu was invited. The real reason, they said, was because he was told that he would be able to attend, but not deliver a speech, and because there was also opposition among the member states to his policies in western Sahara.
Netanyahu's flight took some 12 hours, since he had to fly across the Mediterranean and then south along the Atlantic Coast, rather than cutting across northern Africa, which would have significantly shortened the trip. A number of Muslim countries in northern Africa do not allow Israeli planes to pass through their airspace.
Netanyahu said it was worth flying 24 hours round trip to spend just a few hours on the ground and deliver the speech, because it allows him to meet a large number of African leaders at one time. Otherwise, he joked, he would have to return to the area 15 times.
Though ECOWAS summits are generally held on Saturday, this time the organization held it on Sunday to accommodate Netanyahu and not have it on Shabbat. “This saved us a coalition crisis,” one senior official quipped.
Netanyahu, who visited four countries in east Africa last July, is also scheduled to attend a summit in Togo in October. He is expected to return to Israel later Sunday afternoon.