Washington (Dec. 15)
Are the countries of Black Africa, which broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1972 and 1973, moving toward restoring official ties with the Jewish State? There has been speculation about this from time to time in recent years. But two recent events have increased the suspicion that something is about to happen.
First, President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, while on a visit to Washington, told reporters his government was ready to resume relations with Israel “immediately” but would not act except in conjunction with other African countries.
Then it was disclosed that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon visited several African countries before going to Washington Nov. 30 to sign a Memorandum of Understanding implementing strategic cooperation between the United States and Israel against a Soviet threat to the Middle East. One of those countries was Zaire.
BACKGROUND OF MAJOR BREAKS
Mobutu, who received his paratroop training in Israel, was considered a staunch friend of Israel until he broke relations with Jerusalem two days before the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In a speech announcing his decision at the United Nations General Assembly, Mobutu explained he had to choose between a brother (Egypt) and a friend (Israel).
Zaire’s break with Israel came at a time when the Black African countries were under heavy pressure from the Arab states to sever their ties with Jerusalem. The process started in March 1972, when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who also received his military training in Israel broke off relations after Israel refused to provide him with additional funds. It is believed that the funds were then provided by Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi. Financial aid from Libya was also believed to be the reason Chad broke relations with Israel a few months later.
But the major breaks came in the days before and after the Yom Kippur War and included such close friends as Ghana, Liberia, Kenya the Ivory Coast and Ethiopia, then still ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, who claimed descent from the Biblical meeting between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. By the end of 1973, 27 countries south of the Sahara had broken ties with Israel leaving Jerusalem with diplomatic relations only to Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland.
PROGRAM OF DEVELOPMENT AID
But more than diplomatic relations were broken. Israel since 1958 had a program of development aid to Africa. The program started in Ghana shortly after it became the first Black African state to achieve its independence. It soon was expanded to other African states, and eventually included some 80 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The African program, started by Golda Meir when she was Foreign Minister, was a combination of self-interest and altruism. Since Israel was rejected by its neighbors it could leapfrog over them and find friends among the countries just beyond the Arab borders, friends who would be good trading partners and might provide diplomatic support.
At the same time, Israel as a developing nation itself was accepted by the African countries as a country which could share its experiences in overcoming some of the same problems they faced. The Israeli programs were also designed to have the host country take over their operations as soon as possible.
The programs, which attracted many idealistic young Israelis in the same way the Peace Corps attracted Americans, were operated by the government, by the Histadrut and by private Israeli companies. Many Americans were also brought to Israel for training.
Much, though not all of these programs, were shattered when diplomatic relations were broken. The African countries were soon backing the Arabs in their diplomatic attacks on Israel in the various international forums.
SHIFT BY SOME AFRICAN COUNTRIES
But in the last few years, some African countries have been moving away from this position as they saw that the UN General Assembly and other international forums were being dominated by Arab attacks on Israel while their concerns were given secondary treatment or ignored. At the same time, the Black African countries have gained little economic benefits from the oil-rich Arab countries and, instead, they and other underdeveloped countries have suffered on account of the oil price increases.
Of course, while diplomatic ties have not been renewed other relations, especially trade, have continued between Israel and many Black African countries and have grown in recent years.
Mobutu said in his Washington press conference that he broke relations with Israel to support a fellow African state in Cairo’s effort to get the Sinai back. Now that Egypt has diplomatic relations with Israel and Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai is scheduled to be completed in April, “as far as we are concerned we could do it immediately, “Mobutu said of restoring ties with Jerusalem. “But Zaire is not alone in Africa,” he added. “For the time being I will wait to see what the other ones are going to do.”
There have been other such comments in recent years. Shortly before the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed, a member of Kenya’s Parliament who was touring the U.S. said his country would resume relations with Israel once Egypt had diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. At the UN in 1979, Ivory Coast Ambassador Amoakon Thiemele called for a renewal of relations between Black Africa and Israel. There have been other voices, both public and private.
However, the time may be ripe now. Israel is very concerned about the Soviet penetration in Africa, especially the Horn of Africa which is not too far from its own borders. Many African states, such as Zaire, share this view.
Jerusalem sources linked Sharon’s visit to Africa to Israel’s strategic cooperation with the U.S. The Reagan Administration’s strategic consensus does not seem to have convinced many Arab states of the need for cooperating with Israel. But it may be the catalyst that will result in restoring diplomatic relations between Israel and Black Africa, relations that never should have been broken in the first place.