Israel’s ex-envoy in West Africa discusses increasing diplomatic relations

Paul Hirschson recently completed his work as ambassador to Senegal and six other countries. Back in the Middle East, he discusses Israel’s increasing diplomatic relations.

AMBASSADOR PAUL HIRSCHSON in front of the iconic Mosque of the Divinity in Dakar (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
AMBASSADOR PAUL HIRSCHSON in front of the iconic Mosque of the Divinity in Dakar
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
In the last days of the Obama administration, Egypt sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2334, condemning Israel for the “construction and expansion of settlements.” Under pressure from the incoming Trump administration, the Egyptians withdrew the resolution on a cold Thursday night. It was December 22, just days remained until Trump would be in office and Israel hoped the resolution wouldn’t be passed.
At Israel’s embassy in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, ambassador Paul Hirschson had packed up and gone home for the night. He recalls how “literally hours before voting, the Egyptians withdrew the proposal.” The resolution was important for Senegal because the country was one of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. It also chairs the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Hirschson understood that Senegal would vote for the resolution but when he went home to the modest ambassador’s residence on Thursday night, things seemed to be moving in the right direction.
Instead, 12 hours later, he woke up at 6 a.m. to hear that Senegal, New Zealand, Venezuela and Malaysia had taken up sponsorship of UNSCR 2334. “It’s important to note Senegal wasn’t on its own, they had indicated they wanted to upgrade the relationship [with Israel]. And this isn’t how friends behave.”
Senegal’s President Macky Sall had just returned from a historic visit to Paris. The Jewish state had made it clear it didn’t want the Senegalese to sponsor the resolution, although Jerusalem fully understood they would vote for it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was livid and sought to respond harshly to Dakar. Soon Hirschson was on a plane home, recalled for “consultations.” He informed the Senegalese that Israel was canceling a trip by Senegal’s foreign minister scheduled for January 2017. Israel also suspended activity by Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV).
If in the past Israel has accepted that countries it has relations with would sponsor resolutions condemning it at the UN, December 2016 was a new day. In January, Trump would be in office. Now the world would see, Israel takes these things seriously.
I’d been in Senegal in March 2016, hosted by Hirschson to see the incredible work Israel was doing in West Africa. It was a whirlwind tour. We met a former prime minister, a former presidential candidate and the minister of agriculture, and toured Dakar. The city is one of Africa’s great cultural and economic hubs. Reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean and shaped like an anvil, it is a link with the West and hosts security cooperation operations designed to keep West Africa safe from the threat of terrorism in neighboring countries. It is also home to a unique MASHAV-supported project helping Senegalese learn drip irrigation. Before I left, we visited agricultural projects Israel was supporting, small farms east of Dakar in the plains of Senegal, nestled beneath the giant baobab trees. Two years later, I wanted to see what Hirschson had learned in West Africa and how Israel’s relations were proceeding.
Senegal is a Muslim-majority country, but its unique form of Islam, centered on large Sufi brotherhoods, makes it a special place where Islam in Africa has created a fascinating culture – very different from the one found to the north in Morocco or Algeria and from what takes place in Niger or other countries to the southeast.
Hirschson was Israel’s man in Dakar from August 2015 to August 2018.
“I’ve been interested for a long time in Africa and the Arab world,” he says, over a coffee at Aroma near the Foreign Ministry. He’s back in Israel, back to the grind of Jerusalem, away from the flavors and color of West Africa. His ambassadorship was a kind of return to the continent.
“I grew up in Africa and traveled the world and did business,” he recounts. He wanted to be posted to Dakar. “Being in the Foreign Ministry, one of our major challenges is our relationship with the Arab world, although today we have fantastic stuff going on with us and Egypt and interesting work with Jordan. Senegal is not an Arab country, but it is on the cusp of the Arab world and is a Muslim country.” It’s neighbors with the Arab League. It is 95% Muslim, he points out.
He wanted to go to Senegal because he saw it as a linchpin in Israel’s connections to Africa, the Islamic and Arab worlds.
“I saw and identified that Senegal was headed for a term on the Security Council.” He jokes now that “that ended up in a train wreck.” Nevertheless, at the time “they were going to be on the Security Council six months after I arrived and six months before I left, so the timing was important.”
Although being ambassador to Senegal is an important position on its own, Hirschson wouldn’t just be dealing with Senegal, but seven other countries in West Africa. This would include Mali, which was unofficially covered by his appointment, and Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde.
Recently, Chad’s president visited – demonstrating how the Jewish state’s role in Africa is an important diplomatic frontier where Jerusalem is making gains in recent years. Reports indicate that Israel may be improving outreach to Mali, in West Africa and Sudan; Mali is a neighbor of Senegal where Hirschson was posted.
ISRAEL AND Senegal have long and historic relations. In the 1950s, when Israel was pursuing a “periphery” foreign policy to carve out relations with countries surrounding the Arab states, which were at war with Israel, Africa was seen as wonderful opportunity to make new friends. This was particularly true because African states were emerging from brutal European colonialism and Israel was a country that had also emerged from the fires of Auschwitz and Europe’s historic antisemitism. Israel had a natural connection to these countries, some of its leaders, such as Golda Meir, thought.
In 1959, the Jewish state’s first diplomat arrived in Dakar. In 1960, Israel became the fourth country to recognize Senegal’s independence. But things took a sour turn in 1973, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War when many African states, seeking to support the Arab League, severed relations with Israel. In 1994, in the wake of the Oslo Accords and the end of the Cold War, Israeli diplomats were again in Africa and Senegal.
“We renewed relations with those countries, except for Guinea. Guinea had broken relations in 1967 and it was a special case; we only renewed relations with them two years ago,” Hirschson recalls.
Despite being an important diplomatic post due to its role at the UN and also as a base of work for relations with the rest of West Africa, Senegal does not have major trade relations with Israel and few tourists go back and forth. One way that Israel can help Senegal is through its innovative agricultural expertise.
“My predecessors focused on different things. One did a lot of cultural work. One did a lot of development aid through MASHAV. And one did economic work,” says Hirschson. “All of them did a mix. And all of them addressed the hard-core diplomatic stuff.”
During his tenure, MASHAV embarked on several new projects. Because Israel and drip irrigation have become synonymous among agricultural experts, this was a place Israel could help. Nevertheless, the ambassador had some hesitation about how effective aid projects could be.
“It’s an industry,” he says, referring to the big international donors and projects that tend to never be finished. For 60 years, there have been NGOs and countries investing in projects, but it is not moving in the right direction. People are losing patience with these promises locally after two generations since independence.
“We are in a race against time. Even if things are improving, they are improving less than in OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries. The gap is growing. The average salary is $80 a month; you can go to Paris or London and earn that in a day,” he notes, referring to the phenomenon of large-scale refugee and migrant movements to Europe. So development aid does not seem to be achieving what it purports to do.
But for the ambassador, irrigation was just one part of a much more far-reaching puzzle. Diplomatic goals needed a spotlight.
“We had built up a good name,” he explains, but now it was time to take it to the next level. “When I got there I was more interested in the diplomatic agenda than the development agenda, and I had the feeling we had enough goodwill we were not leveraging.”
So Hirschson pushed for relations with Guinea, and he also wanted these countries that Israel did have relations with to send ambassadors to Israel. Their posts were open.
“None of them had head-of-state-to-head-of-state meetings or ministerial visits. In Guinea-Bissau, my predecessor had never presented credentials. We hadn’t had a visit for nearly six years.”
You can’t have a proper conversation if you aren’t there, Hirschson stresses. Sierra Leone was recovering from Ebola and he wanted to do more there. An Israeli NGO named IsraAID was working there.
“I started pushing for implementing those things. Sierra Leone appointed an ambassador and so did Senegal. We had a foreign minister visit that was postponed but happened.”
Hirschson then lists a variety of achievements. Gambia and Guinea Bissau said they would appoint ambassadors. The president of Sierra Leone came to Israel, the prime minister of Guinea-Bissau and the foreign minister of Senegal came to visit. The credentials presented by several of these countries to President Reuven Rivlin also mentioned the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, which Hirschson sees as symbolic. “On one hand, one could argue these things are not relevant; on the other hand, these are countries in the Muslim world that haven’t paid attention to Israel. We aren’t exactly big donors, they don’t feel obligated, and these are significant [visits].”
At the UN and in international forums, the burgeoning relations also bore fruit.
“We saw with four of the six countries, indications of a change, a move from ‘against Israel’ to abstaining or being ‘absent’” at certain votes. Hirschson lobbied hard. “For instance, Cape Verde said they are no longer voting against Israel.” The changes came as Israel was placing a larger emphasis on Africa. This included a trip by Netanyahu and a speech at the ECOWAS industrial summit in 2017. “Netanyahu was the first non-African head of state guest of honor and keynote speaker at the 51st summit.”
Hirschson says that Israel has a unique conversation in Africa.
“I would speak about myself, that our first experience [as Jews] was being slaves in Egypt 3,000 years ago and then refugees in Africa 2,500 years ago. And it was one of the places that received us decently. Our third engagement was 500 years ago, exactly at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when the European explorers were going out to Africa and the New World and Jews came to Senegal and Cape Verde and elsewhere. And our fourth engagement with Africa is in modern times.”
This unique conversation is different than the one that European states might have with African countries, where they have to admit their role in the brutal colonization and enslavement of millions. Off the coast of Dakar there is a small island where hundreds of thousands of slaves were shipped to the New World through the infamous door of no return. Jews have a similar narrative to that of these countries that were victims. “It’s the same narrative of slavery, exile, being conquered, refugees, regaining sovereignty,” says Hirschson. “So not only did we speak about different things but we spoke to them in a different way.”
On December 1, 2016, Gambia held a presidential election. The small country is shaped like a snake because its borders run along a river. It is also fully surrounded by Senegal, and Senegal therefore has an interest in its security. From 1994, it had been run by Yahya Jammeh, who had declared it an “Islamic Republic” in 2015. A year later, sure he would win, he held elections. However, Adama Barrow, an opposition candidate, received the most votes. Jammeh refused to concede and Barrow fled to Senegal, where he was sworn in as president in exile on January 19.
“It happened at the same time as the UN crises,” Hirschson recalls. “I sat with the Senegal Foreign Ministry after the election.”
The Senegalese ambassador in Banjul phoned in the surprising results. When Jammeh refused to go, Senegal decided to act. “They were fed up with Jammeh, West Africa was fed up with him, he made a mistake in arrogance, he allowed proper democratic elections and thought he would win them. He was overwhelmed by arrogance after 22 years in power. And he lost.”
ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States), the UN, African Union and international community were mobilized to support an intervention. Nigeria said its air force would participate. Eventually 7,000 men were called up to face Gambia’s tiny 2,000-man army.
“This was a spectacular enforcement of democracy by a regional grouping.” Jammeh’s forces were swept aside and Barrow returned to Gambia on January 26. “There are problems in Gambia today. So the Senegalese security is active in Gambia protecting the president,” says Hirschson.
IN THE lead-up to the UN crisis with Senegal, the ambassador was trying to get the Senegalese to schedule a major state visit and appoint an ambassador to Israel.
“I ran, I chased until they did it and we got the foreign minister to visit.” The problem at the UN in late December almost scuttled some of the work Hirschson had put in. He had spoken to Dakar about the expectation that they would not sponsor the UN resolution. “Those 12 hours after we knew they were sponsoring it, they understood how much we didn’t want that.”
Up until the final moment, Hirschson says he had a hope they might withdraw sponsorship, as Egypt had done. Senegal understood there would be repercussions.
“Before I left, basically as I told them I was being recalled for consultations, I informed them we were canceling the foreign minister’s trip scheduled for January and the ambassador was no longer invited to present credentials. I told them our MASHAV activity was suspended.”
It was the correct decision, Hirschson says in retrospect. With the warmth of a Jerusalem autumn peeking through the windows, the former ambassador sketched out the way Israel must operate in this complex world.
“You have all these superpowers in the world and we aren’t that, but we are in the next class, we are a significant player. We are big enough today to be able to stand up and say we aren’t comfortable with this or that.” Israel no longer has to kowtow. Israel takes responsibility for its actions and countries that it has relations with, such as those in Africa, can do the same. In this case, Senegal wanted upgraded relations with Israel. Israel has assets that can benefit West Africa, including technology and hi-tech and expertise in security.
The brief crisis in December 2016 has turned out well for Israel-Senegal relations. Senegal understands that its relations with Israel and the Palestinians can run in parallel.
“For one thing, Senegal agreed publicly to supporting Israel given observer status on the African Union. One day it will happen,” he says.
But not everything has recovered from December.
“We had signed a three-year trilateral agreement with Italy and Senegal. When I arrived we did what we were supposed to and the other parties were a little slow.” Although the projects moved forward, Israel didn’t finish the project and then after the five months of crises before Hirschson returned, the project was put on hold. Nevertheless, more Senegalese than ever before are coming for agricultural training.
Hirschson’s survey of developments in West Africa goes beyond what is happening in Senegal and the development of closer relations between Jerusalem and African states in recent years. Many things are changing in Africa that will have long-term consequences. China is making major investments. The US sees security cooperation as essential in defeating terrorism and extremism in the Sahel, the climate zone between central Africa and the Sahara. In Niger, hundreds of US personnel are helping to advise in the fight against ISIS and its allies. In October 2017, four US soldiers were killed in battle. There have been terrorist attacks in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
There has been no terrorism in Senegal, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. There are porous borders in West Africa and local tribes and families straddle the borders, which were drawn by European powers.
“I did not feel threatened at any point,” Hirschson notes. Several people from Senegal joined ISIS and there is concern that some might try to return. “Before going to Senegal I wrote about the Sahel; it’s a perfect place to hide, plan, store and train and organize. And those going home to the Maghreb, for them to go down, there is all this human trafficking and money laundering and drug trafficking.”
Senegal is acutely aware of the potential threat. “That is another reason they want to upgrade their ties with Israel. Israel has know-how, experience and technology par excellence, and West Africa wants it,” says the former ambassador.
Looking back, he sees a lot of opportunities in West Africa.
“It’s a neglected part of the world and that’s a tragedy. There are a billion people in Africa and in 2050 it will be 2.5 billion, and 70% of world’s population growth.” These countries want technology and know-how. When he first arrived, Hirschson says, the European diplomats he met with talked about governance and human rights and counter-terrorism, development and economic relations. When he returned in 2017, after the December UN crises, the conversation was different.
“The only thing on the agenda was ‘clandestine immigration,’” a reference to the large numbers of African migrants seeking to cross to Europe.
In such an environment, with Europe less interested in local problems and China investing in major projects, Israel has a unique role to play.