Chad President Idriss Déby, who arrived Sunday for a trip kept secret until the last minute, said his visit will enable the opening of a “new chapter” in ties between the two countries which have not had diplomatic relations for the last 46 years.
Though neither he nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who delivered public statements after holding a private meeting, did not declare the establishment of formal diplomatic ties, it was clear that this was the direction the relations were headed.
This is the first visit to Israel by a Chadian president.
“Chad is a very important country in Africa, and a very important country for Israel,” Netanyahu said, standing alongside the African leader. “I am happy we are resuming our friendship,” he added, saying though diplomatic ties were cut off in 1972, cooperation – which he said will now be extended – always continued “under the radar.”
Both he and Déby stressed the need for cooperation in fighting terrorism, apparently the prime impetus in the renewal of ties, as Chad is on the front lines in Africa battling a number of different radical Islamic organizations. Déby characterized terrorism as a disease of humanity that necessitates cooperation by all countries to defeat.
Netanyahu said that he and Déby discussed the changes taking place in the Arab world regarding their attitudes toward Israel.
“This was manifest in my recent visit in Oman,” he said of his trip there last month. “And there will be more such visits in Arab countries very soon
Netanyahu also said, in reference to a possible reciprocal visit to Chad, that he has visited both Eastern and Western Africa over the last two years, and now intends to visit Central Africa, bringing with him Israeli entrepreneurs, experts and business people.
Considering the tremendous sensitivity of the visit, Déby was careful in his brief public comments to stress that his visit came at Netanyahu’s invitation, and that his country “very much wants to see a solution between Israel and Palestine.”
The visit was kept carefully under wraps for weeks, with Netanyahu’s office only announcing it Sunday at noon.
Following the press statements and initial meeting, Déby went to the President’s Residence for a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin. “For us Africa is the future,” Rivlin commented. “Chad is the future, and we want to share our rich experience.”
Rivlin recalled that from its early years, while still fighting for its very existence, Israel developed agricultural know-how and water-saving techniques and sent experts to Africa to share that knowledge.
He voiced the wish that diplomatic relations will soon be resumed and stated that it would give him great pleasure to receive the credentials of the ambassador of Chad to Israel.
He also sought Deby’s assistance in calling on all African states which still have no diplomatic ties with Israel to become partners for change.
From his meeting with Rivlin, Déby went to another meeting with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu characterized Déby’s visit as “another diplomatic breakthrough.”
Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the visit “reflects the rising status of Israel” among the nations.
“I reiterate this time and again,” he said. “Every week we see the implementation of this concept, of cultivating economic-technological strength, alongside security-intelligence strength, to receive political-diplomatic strength. This is happening before our eyes, one might say, on a daily basis.”
National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat visited Chad a few weeks ago, and Netanyahu said that he met Déby at a ceremony marking a century to the end of World War I earlier this month in Paris.
“Today we turn a new page in relations with Chad, and I tell you – there will yet be other countries soon,” he said.
Ben-Shabbat and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi greeted Déby when he arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Since becoming the first Israeli prime minister in July 2016 to visit Africa in some three decades – going to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia – Netanyahu has placed improved ties with Africa high on the country’s diplomatic agenda. Since that visit, he has made two other trips to Africa – to Liberia and Kenya.
Chad, which severed ties with Israel in 1972 after coming under intense pressure from Libya, is a member of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Contacts with Chad about re-establishing diplomatic ties have taken place intermittently since then-Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold went to the country and met Déby shortly after Netanyahu’s visit to Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda in 2016.
Gold said that Chad is a “key” country in Africa that “has a great significance as a positive, stabilizing power in the region.”
The country, which has some 14 million people spread over nearly 1.3 million square kilometers, is a member of the G5 Sahel – which also includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Those countries established a joint military force in 2017 to face increasing terrorist threats.
Gold termed Chad a “rising power” in Africa with a military that is considered “developed and efficient.” It has also sent peacekeeping forces to other states nearby, including Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Asked whether relations with Chad could lead other Muslim or Arab countries to go public with their ties with Israel, Gold said that Chad’s step shows that “significant” countries with Muslim majorities “are increasingly open about their relations with Israel, and could have an effect on the decision of other Muslim states.”
Déby, one senior diplomatic official said, has “clout” in the region because of success his military has had in fighting radical Islamic groups, such as Boko Haram and affiliates of al-Qaeda. He is a veteran African leader – having been in power since 1990 and former head of the African Union – who has influence on the continent.
The hope is that the visit could influence others in the region to develop ties with Israel. In addition to Chad, the other predominantly Muslim states with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations in sub-Saharan Africa are Mali, Chad, Niger, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Comoros and Mauritania.
Israel established diplomatic relations with Mauritania in 1999, but Mauritania severed those ties in 2009 following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Déby, the official said, “knows and realizes that Israel can be an effective ally in the war against radical Islamic extremism, and that we can be of assistance in many areas, both militarily and in the civilian sectors.”
The Chadian president will be in the country until Tuesday morning. He is slated on Monday to visit Yad Vashem, visit water and agricultural centers in the south, and go to the Soroka-University Medical Center in Beersheba to look at its neonatal center.Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.
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