The back story behind the Cape Verde volte-face this month on whether it will or will not continue to vote against Israel at the UN shines an instructive light on the challenges and sensitivities Israel faces as it tries to move back into Africa in a significant way.
On August 2, the Prime Minister’s Office put out a statement saying that Cape Verde, an archipelago of 10 islands off the coast of West Africa, had announced it would no longer vote against Israel at the UN.
The statement attributed this to two reasons: intensive diplomatic efforts and a meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had with the country’s President Jorge Carlos Fonseca in June at a summit meeting of the Economic Community of West African States African States in Monrovia, Liberia.
Netanyahu took the additional step of highlighting the Cape Verde development at the cabinet meeting the following Sunday, saying it was “very important” and an indication of the success of his policy of prioritizing relations with Africa.
While some may question the importance of a state of just over half a million people voting for Israel at the UN, it is not of negligible impact, one diplomatic official said, because it is a small step that – added up with other small steps in Africa over the last year and planned ones in the coming months – creates a critical mass that significantly changes the situation for Israel in Africa.
Other small steps include Netanyahu’s visit to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia in July 2016; his visit to the ECOWAS summit in Liberia in June; the constant parade of African prime ministers and foreign ministers coming to Jerusalem and even the quickness with which Israel dispatched aid to Sierra Leone following the devastating mudslide there last Monday.
Taken individually, each of these steps seems relatively unimportant. Put together, however, they represent a bigger trend of vastly improved ties with Africa that has significant implications for Israel diplomatically.
This trend has also been identified by Israel’s adversaries, which is why there is starting to be significant push-back, such as opposition by the Palestinian Authority and Morocco to a planned Israel-Africa summit in Togo in October.
The only problem with the Prime Minister‘s Office’s announcement that Cape Verde has decided to change its voting pattern on Israel was that a week later, Fonseca seemed to walk it back in a convoluted Facebook post in which he said he never talked about this with Netanyahu in Liberia.
So what really happened? Inquiries into the matter revealed the following developments: Israel, well aware of the sensitivity of these types of issues, generally does not trumpet decisions such as the Cape Verde one, knowing that once they are announced there will be all kinds of counter-pressure to cancel them.
The Cape Verde decision to change its voting pattern was relayed to Israeli diplomats in March, following intensive consultations. Neither country announced the move.
Someone, however, got wind of the change and leaked it to local paper in Cape Verde which reported it on August 1. Israeli diplomatic sources believed it was leaked in an attempt to torpedo the change.
Once the story was out in Cape Verde, however, the feeling in Jerusalem was that there was a need to acknowledge it and thank the Cape Verde president. As a result, the Prime Minister’s Office issued its statement.
But the statement was not entirely accurate. Yes, the country did decide to change its voting patterns, but it did not come about as a result of the meeting between Netanyahu and Fonseca in Monrovia.
While to outsiders, that little fact does not make a big difference, in Cape Verde – a country where there is a semi-presidential system of government and constant friction between the executive and legislative branches over who gets to determine policy – that the president would unilaterally make this type of decision was a huge bone of contention.
This was evident in Fonseca’s Facebook post, in which he said he recognizes that the government – meaning the prime minister and legislative branch – is “the responsible entity for the implementation of the country’s foreign policy.”
Fonseca clarified that during his meeting with Netanyahu in Monrovia the question of how his country would vote did not come up.
This was important for him to stress because it shows that he was not trying to usurp powers not his own.
This, he indicated in the post, was not his competency.
In other words, Fonseca’s Facebook post was more a result of internal battles over who gets to decide what in Cape Verde than a denial that the country will no longer vote against Israel at the UN.
Nowhere in the Facebook post, one diplomatic official pointed out, did the president deny that there would be a change in Cape Verde’s voting pattern.
Hopefully, he said, the West African country has not gone back on this, stressing that the importance is not necessarily that such a decision would have earth-shattering diplomatic significance, but rather because it represents another small step toward building a critical mass of support for Israel inside Africa.