Ambassador Paul Hirschson at a small farm project supported by Israel in Senegal in March .
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The government “instructed the Foreign Ministry to cancel all aid programs to Senegal,” tweeted the account of the Foreign Ministry just after midnight on Saturday. The tweet came in reaction to a resolution at the United Nations Security Council condemning Israeli settlements. Senegal was one of four co-sponsors of the resolution, along with Malaysia, Venezuela and New Zealand.
The US did not veto the resolution and it passed 14-0.
The tweets by the ministry singled out Senegal for opprobrium.
Israel “ordered the cancellation of the planned visit to Israel of the Senegalese foreign minister in three weeks,” and “instructed Israel’s ambassadors in New Zealand and Senegal to immediately return for consultations.” The tweets also announced cancellation of visits to Israel by the non-resident ambassador of Senegal.
It appears Senegal was singled out because Israel does not have relations with Malaysia, and its relations with Venezuela were severed in 2009, so Senegal and New Zealand were the two countries that could be affected. However Israel’s relations with Senegal are different from those it has with New Zealand.
The focus on Senegal is inconsistent with Israel’s long period of good relations with the African Muslim state. In March, the Foreign Ministry highlighted how the Jewish state was providing agriculture technology to small farmers and has touted the visit of Senegalese imams. Israel and its ambassador in Senegal Paul Hirschson have supported a project by MASHAV (Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation) to support 4,000 farms. In September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Senegalese President Macky Sall to visit Israel.
Former ambassador to Senegal Gideon Behar told reporters in Dakar in 2011 that the peace process was important. “It is time to resume dialogue and negotiations.” He discussed the importance that Africa can play in a “process of rapprochement between Israel and Palestine,” the Senegalese media website xalimasn.com reported.
In a more recent interview Behar was quoted in Agence de Presse Senegalaise saying: “Israel wants to have more relations with the African continent.”
These relations with sub-Saharan Africa have been improving in recent years, with visits by Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman.
In July, Israel renewed relations with Guinea after a break of 49 years. Guinea had cut ties with the Jewish state due to the 1967 war.
In Senegal, Israel’s mission is built on a historic relationship formed in the 1960s when Golda Meir visited there. Shimon Peres also went in 1978. In 1999, then-communications minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer led a business delegation to Dakar. The ministry said it was the first of its kind in 15 years.
“Over 90% of [Senegal’s] citizens are Muslim and Senegal is strongly characterized by Islam. This is one of the reasons that the minister places such great importance in establishing positive relations between Israel and Senegal,” a ministry spokesman wrote at the time.
On the ground in Senegal Israel enjoys unique respect, a fact this reporter saw firsthand in March. With the vast majority of Senegalese engaged in small farming, Israel’s expertise in drip irrigation is welcomed.
The country also was impressed that Behar learned Wolof, the local language. The embassy also provides sheep annually for Eid al-Adha. The drip irrigation project to support small farmers is in its infancy, but hundreds are in the process of being trained.
Strategically, Senegal is also a key to Israeli relations for several reasons. Dakar is not only the seat of the embassy but it is the hub of security, humanitarian and economic power in West Africa. In 2015, Senegal was elected to the UN Security Council and it chairs the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, a committee established in 1975 by the UN General Assembly.
Because Senegal bridges these worlds between Israel and Africa, and Israel and the Islamic world, it has been seen as a key relationship. During the Security Council session, Senegal’s ambassador to the UN reportedly did not give a statement.
Ambassador Fode Seck has been outspoken in the past about the Palestinians, supporting increased aid and international support.
However, he has also focused on other issues, such as the battle against Islamic State in Mosul. Senegal is also embroiled in the possibility of a conflict in neighboring Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh refuses to step down after losing an election on December 1. On December 23 Senegal put its army on alert, with reports at the BBC that it may lead operations if the crisis deepens.