PM Netanyahu in Liberia.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
MONROVIA, Liberia – A communique put out by Morocco’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday seemed to belie all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talk in recent months about a growing confluence of interests between Israel and the Sunni Arab states that have led to unprecedented cooperation.
The Moroccan statement said King Mohammed VI would not take part in Sunday’s meeting of 15-African states in a group called the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) because Netanyahu was going to be there. God forbid, the communique said in not so many words, that the two should meet by chance.
Morocco, it turns out, wants to join ECOWAS, and the king had hoped to attend the conference to push this bid. The Foreign Ministry statement, after noting that Netanyahu was invited, said the king “wants his first presence at an ECOWAS summit not to take place in a context of tension and controversy and wants to avoid any confusion.”
The statement continued: “Over the last few days, key ECOWAS member states have decided to reduce their level of representation at the summit due to their disagreement with the invitation handed to the Israeli prime minister. Other member states also expressed their astonishment at this invitation.”
Senior Israel diplomatic officials, however, completely denied the Moroccan version of events, saying the king was miffed that ECOWAS denied his request to speak, and that a number of ECOWAS countries objected to Morocco’s participation because of its policies in the western Sahara. Nor, for that matter, did other delegations downgrade their representation.
Regardless, what is telling about the whole incident is that ECOWAS – an organization in a difficult part of the world made up of one-third Christian states, onethird Muslim ones and one-third with mixed populations – decided last December to invite Netanyahu to speak at their summit knowing full well that it would lead to some fallout from the North African Arab countries.
Yet invite Netanyahu they did.
Some may say that the fact Netanyahu had to travel way out of his way to reach Liberia and avoid flying over North Africa, and that the Moroccan king – according to his own telling – did not want to risk the chance encounter with Netanyahu, is a signal of Israel’s isolation. But the fact that ECOWAS invited him in the first place – not caring about reactions from other parts of the world – speaks volumes.
And it makes sense.
Netanyahu departs for Liberia: 'Israel has returned to Africa' (credit: GPO)
If you are the president of Liberia, which hosted Sunday’s conference, and you have rampant poverty, little electricity and huge challenges in everything from health to security, which country is a more important partner: Israel or Morocco? Over the years, Netanyahu has done a tremendous job marketing Israel’s technological prowess and convincing the world that it needs Israeli expertise in the fields of agriculture, water technology, cyber security and anti-terrorism. And it’s not a bluff. It’s real. Israel does have a tremendous amount to offer in these areas.
And it is because of all that Israel has to offer that much of Africa is excited and interested in ties.
But now that Israel has these countries’ interest, it must deliver – and that means providing the resources.
Netanyahu has made clear that he wants Israel to return to Africa in a big way. And, increasingly, Africa is showing that they are bought in. But it will be difficult to do all that with the current resources available to the Foreign Ministry.
When Netanyahu was in east Africa last year, he spoke of the need to open additional embassies. That was not done in the ensuing months, not because African countries did not want them, but because the resources were not there. Israel is currently served by some 10 embassies, and only 20 diplomats, throughout the whole of Africa.
“We are doing a lot with a little,’ the prime minister told reporters on his plane on the way to Liberia. And that is both true and admirable. But Israel is also promising a lot more, with Netanyahu saying on Sunday that Israel can provide the solutions to many of Africa’s problems.
That type of talk builds up significant expectations.
To meet those expectations, the resources must follow.
It is no small feat for Netanyahu to be warmly received and address an organization of 15 African states, many of them with very large Muslim populations.
The Africans are indeed hungry for what Israel has to offer. Now, it is incumbent on Israel to deliver – and for that you need diplomats and embassies and aid money. Words will only go so far.
Liberia and Ghana, two countries now with great expectations from Israel, have all of one Israeli diplomat to serve them. To translate Netanyahu’s words Sunday into actions, that type of situation will have to be rectified, because 10 embassies with 20 diplomats cannot deliver all that Israel is now promising.