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Behind the Headlines Israel and the 3rd World: a New Stage

July 23, 1985
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Israel’s relationship with the Third World has moved to a crucial third stage — from close ties in the 1960’s to a post-Yom Kippur War boycott by the Black African states to a gradual warming again over the last five years. Now there is hope of a major diplomatic breakthrough in the coming months.

This conclusion is based on a recent two-week visit to three West African countries — Liberia, Ivory Coast and Cameroon — as part of a seven-member American Jewish goodwill delegation under the auspices of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

At present only Liberia, of the three states visited, has full diplomatic relations with Israel, renewed two years ago. But Israel maintains unofficial diplomatic contact through Israeli “special interest officers” working out of the Belgian Embassies in both Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. Similar economic and diplomatic ties exist between Israel and Kenya, Ghana and Togo.

Several of these states have expressed a strong interest in renewing full diplomatic ties with Israel, but admit to fearing Libyan Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s threat to eliminate any African leader who does so. One of Israel’s goals is to assuage these fears by bolstering local security within the African capitals. Another is to coordinate the timing of renewed diplomatic relations so that as many as six African states might announce a joint decision to establish Embassies with Israel.

“It is a priority for us to work with these countries because of the humanitarian and economic aspects, and because it is vitally important for Israel to have as many friends in the political world as possible.” explained a high Israeli official involved with the African effort.


Israel now has full diplomatic relations with six members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU): Liberia, Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zaire and Egypt, and has “contacts” with another 15 of the 51 OAU states.

Israel is popular among the peoples of these African countries. And understandably so. From the late 1950’s until 1973, Israel’s program of scientific, agricultural and technical assistance to developing nations was a major humanitarian and diplomatic success.

But during the Yom Kippur War, the African states responded to Arab pressure by severing all diplomatic relations with Jerusalem for allegedly attacking a fellow African state, Egypt. The Arabs did little to aid the African states, though, and when Egypt herself made peace with Israel in 1979, the logic of the continued boycott was removed.

“After Egypt made peace with Israel, we found it unnecessary to be more holy than the Pope,” explained Liberian Foreign Minister Earnest Eastman during a meeting with the ADL delegation in Monrovia, the capital city.

He said his country’s “bold step” in renewing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1983 was met with “many negative reactions from the Arab world,” including the deregistration of Liberian ships as well as negative votes at OAU meetings and in the United Nations. “But that has not hindered us because our decision is fundamentally correct,” he said.


Political instability is the norm in West Africa, where tribal rivalries, economic decline, widespread official corruption and tenuous government control are constant problems. Nowhere in the region are these problems more evident than Liberia, a depressed and depressing country of two million, which is nevertheless of critical importance to the U.S.

There are moral and historical reasons why Liberia receives the highest per capita U.S. aid of any African country(totaling about $80 million this year): the state was founded in 1847 by former American slaves who based their Constitution on America’s and named their capital, Monrovia, after President James Monroe.

The official language is English and the currency is the U.S. Dollar. But Liberia is also of strategic importance to the U.S., providing Air Force and Navy base facilities, the Voice of America base for Africa and the site of one of the five Omega tracking stations in the world, monitoring the movement of all ships and planes.

Foreign Minister Eastman and other Liberian Cabinet members expressed a love-hate relationship for the U.S., referring to their country as “America’s stepchild.” They had warmer words for Israel, which they said has been a good and loyal friend.


Samuel Doe, a master sergeant, led a military coup in April, 1980, eliminating President William Tolbert, suspending the Constitution and imposing martial law. Doe has managed to maintain power for five years despite a series of attempted coups. In a meeting with the ADL delegation at the executive mansion in Monrovia, Africa’s youngest leader defended his decision to renew diplomatic ties with Israel and said he hoped other African leaders would follow suit.

He pledged that his nation will soon return to civilian rule and he invited the visitors to attend the 1986 inauguration of the next President following democratic elections in November.

This is significant because Doe has been under strong American pressure to hold free and fair elections, which he has postponed several times since 1981.

(One reason for the delay is that Doe, who has changed his official biography to make himself two years older, just turned 35 — according to the revised version — the minimum age requirement for President according to Liberia’s new Constitution.)

Doe has taken steps to make it difficult for other candidates to be eligible to run for President. The U.S. is currently debating foreign aid to Liberia and attempting to link continued heavy financial support to Doe holding free elections.

Doe told the visitors he hoped they would “tell the truth” about Liberia and encourage an American Jewish economic mission to visit Liberia and discuss investment possibilities.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

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