MONROVIA, LIBERIA - Prime Minister Benjamin traveled 12 hours each way to Liberia on Sunday in an effort to demonstrate that Israel is serious when it says that it is coming back to Africa.
Netanyahu, in a 15-minute speech to the leaders of the 15 nations that make up the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS), said that Israel is willing to send “technology survey teams to every one of your countries and see together what is the best way to cooperate.”
Two of the 15 states – Niger and Mali – do not have diplomatic ties with Israel. The delegates from both countries, however, remained to hear Netanyahu speak in the small conference hall directly across the street from Roberts International Airport outside of Monrovia where the conference was held.
“We want to help your soil become more fertile,” Netanyahu said. “Your water more usable, your cities safer, and your air cleaner. The foundations of cooperation we lay today will last many decades into the future.”
PM Netanyahu arrives in Liberia (credit: GPO)
In every field, he said, “Israeli technology is there to work with you to provide solutions to solve the most pressing problems of Africa.”
Netanyahu, however, made it clear that Israel wanted something back in return.
“Our growing bilateral relations should be reflected in international forums,” he said. Netanyahu said that Israel should once again gain observer status in the African Union, something it has been trying to attain now for several years, but has been blocked by South Africa, which held the chairmanship of the organization until recently. Netanyahu said that while having an observer status in the African Union was “definitely in our interest,” he added that “I fervently believe that it is your interests” as well.
He also turned to the countries and asked for their support “in rejecting anti-Israeli bias at the UN and UN bodies such as the UN General Assembly, UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Committee.
In last month's UNESCO vote denying Israel sovereignty over Jerusalem, one of the ECOWAS states (Togo) voted for Israel, Senegal and Nigeria voted against, and four others abstained: Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana and Guinea.
Cote d'Ivoire will be replacing Senegal as one of Africa's representatives on the Security Council in 2018, a net gain from Israel. The other African countries on the Security Council will be Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia, another friendly African country whose prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn arrived in Israel on Monday for a four-day visit.
Netanyahu told the ECOWAS delegates that the attitudes of many countries around the world were rapidly changing regarding Israel, no more so than among Arab states. With these words he was reflecting what Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta said last year when Netanyahu visited his country: that if the Gulf State countries can benefit from ties with Israel, there is no reason African countries should not be able to do so as well.
“Many Arab countries in the fight against terrorism no longer see Israel as their enemy, they see Israel as their ally,” he said. “I would even say an indispensable ally.” Netanyahu said this change is the “best hope for peace,” not only between Israel and the countries of the region, but also Israel and the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, Morocco's foreign ministry said on Thursday that King Mohammed VI decided not to attend the ECOWAS meeting because of Netanyahu's participation. Morocco is interested in joining ECOWAS.
Sources close to Netanyahu denied the Moroccan Foreign Ministry's claim that the King 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 told reporters on his plane to Liberia that the overall purpose of his 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 -- a member of ECOWAS -- 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.
Netanyahu's flight to Liberia 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 was greeted with full honors when his plane landed. He surveyed a Liberian honor guard with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and was also greeted by a troupe of dancers performing a traditional African dance.
Netanyahu was seated at the head table during the conference, and the MC extended to him a “special welcome” saying that ECOWAS “very greatly appreciated” the Israeli Prime Minister's participation, and that it “underscored the historic nature of the meeting.”
One delegate to the conference, Antoine Bado from the Burkina Faso Foreign Ministry, said that it was “natural” and “positive” for Netanyahu to be at the conference. “Israel is a model,” he told The Jerusalem Post
In addition to Netanyahu, the only other non-African who addressed the meeting was EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini. Netanyahu huddled with her briefly after he spoke, and also held bilateral talks with a number of African leaders, including the head of Liberia, Gambia, Ghana and Togo.
The meeting with Togo's President Faure Gnassingbé was delayed briefly after Israeli and Togolese security guards exchanged words and some blows when too many Togolese guards tried to accompany him to his visit with Netanyahu.
A ruckus was heard in the corridor of the hotel where the meeting was to take place, followed by a number of Israeli security guards who rushed out to help and see what the excitement was about.
The incident ended in seconds.
Togo is widely considered among Israel's best friends in Africa, and Netanyahu is scheduled to participate in a summit there in October with the leaders of some 25 African states.
Netanyahu announced Sunday that Israel would appoint an ambassador to ECOWAS, who will sit in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, where the organization’s headquarters are located, and will open new trade offices in both eastern and western Africa.
He is expected to return to Israel later Sunday afternoon.