Israel is working to establish diplomatic ties with a number of central African nations, including Sudan, Israeli television reports said Sunday night, as Chadian leader Idriss Déby made a historic visit to the Jewish state and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled he would soon travel to unspecified Arab states.
A senior Israeli official told Channel 10 that Déby’s visit was laying the groundwork for normalizing ties with Muslim-majority countries Sudan, Mali and Niger.
According to the report, Israel’s diplomatic push in Africa is driven in part by a desire to ease air travel to Latin America. Flying in the airspace of traditionally hostile African countries — namely Chad and Sudan — would allow airlines to offer faster, more direct flights between Israel and the continent.
Channel 10 estimated that flying directly from Israel to Brazil over Sudan would shave some four hours off the average journey, which currently takes at least 17 hours, and requires a stopover in either Europe or North America.
Separately, Hadashot television news reported on Sunday that Netanyahu has secured reassurances from Oman that airlines flying to and from Israel — including national carrier El Al — would be permitted to fly over the kingdom’s airspace. The prime minister received this message during his surprise visit to Muskat last month — the first by an Israeli leader in over 20 years, the television report said.
Israel has long been wary of Sudan, which was traditionally seen as close to Iran. However, in early 2017, Khartoum joined Sunni Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in severing its ties with the Islamic Republic.
At the time, the country also appeared to make overtures toward Israel. Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said in a 2016 interview that Sudan was open to the idea of normalizing ties with Israel in exchange for lifting US sanctions on Khartoum. According Hebrew-language media reports at the time, Israeli diplomats tried to drum up support for Sudan in the international community after it severed its ties to Tehran.
In the past, Sudan has allegedly served as a way-station for the transfer of Iranian weapons to the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza. Israel has reportedly intercepted and destroyed transfers of weapons from Sudan bound for Gaza.
In 2009, the International Criminal Court also issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, relating to the bloody conflict in the western Darfur region.
However, since it broke ties with Iran, Sudan is no longer perceived by Israel as a threat, but rather as a potential ally.
Earlier on Sunday, Déby became the first president of Chad to visit Israel and pledged a new era of relations when meeting Netanyahu, 46 years after ties were severed.
In remarks to journalists after a closed-door meeting, Déby spoke of the two countries committing to a new era of cooperation with “the prospect of reestablishing diplomatic relations.”
Déby said he was “proud” that he had accepted Israel’s official invite. “It can be called breaking the ice,” he said. “We came here indeed with the desire to renew diplomatic relations. Your country is an important country. Your country, like Chad, fights against terrorism.”
Chad, a Muslim-majority, Arabic-speaking country in central Africa, broke off relations with Israel in 1972.
Despite the lack of formal ties, both Deby and Netanyahu on Sunday stressed the centrality of security cooperation between the two countries.
Chad is also one of several African states engaged in Western-backed operations against Boko Haram and Islamic State jihadists in West Africa. Earlier this month, the US donated military vehicles and boats worth $1.3 million to Chad as part of the campaign against Islamist militancy in the country.
Under Deby, Chad’s government has been accused of widespread human rights abuses and rigged elections. He took over the arid, impoverished nation in 1990 and won a disputed fifth term in April 2016.
On Sunday, Chadian security sources were quoted by Reuters saying that Israel had sent Chad arms and money earlier this year to help the country in its fight against Islamist groups. Netanyahu in his remarks to journalists thanked Déby for his visit and hailed “flourishing” ties between Israel and African nations. He declined questions about whether the two leaders discussed potential Israeli arms sales to Chad.
Netanyahu portrayed the unprecedented visit as the result of his hard-won diplomatic efforts, referring to his three visits to Africa over the last couple years and his surprise trip to Oman in October.
The visit to Oman, a major diplomatic victory for Netanyahu, was an apparent sign of Israeli progress in improving ties with Gulf countries.
Also Sunday, Netanyahu added that “there will be more such visits in Arab countries very soon,” without providing details.
Agencies contributed to this report.