N’DJAMENA, Chad — Many Israelis would probably have difficulty locating Chad on a map, or pronouncing the name of its capital city, N’Djamena.
It seems also safe to assume that most never have and never will set foot in this northern-central African country, the world’s 20th largest, which had warm relations with Jerusalem in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, including mutual high-level visits and arms deals, before ties were severed in 1972.
But that did not stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from declaring a “historic and important breakthrough” as he made his way to the heart of Africa on Sunday to re-establish diplomatic relations.
Within the regional context, Chad is indeed an important player. Bordering Libya, Sudan, Nigeria and Cameroon, the state run by President Idriss Déby is considered an influential partner in the continent’s struggle against radical Islamism, with the regime helping fight al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other terror groups.
Netanyahu has long designated Africa as a prime target for Israeli diplomacy. He has traveled to the continent four times over the last two-and-a-half years, and met with numerous African leaders — including secretly with some whose nations do not have formal relations with Israel.
Represses protests, threatens journalists
None of the African countries Netanyahu has courted are model democracies. But few have a poorer scorecard than Chad, which is one of the poorest, most unfree and least literate countries in the world.
In 2017, the Republic of Chad had a GDP of $29 billion, compared to Israel’s $317 billion.
The Freedom House pro-democracy watchdog rates the country as not free. “Legislative elections are routinely delayed, and opposition activists risk arrest and severe mistreatment while in detention. The state typically represses anti-government protests,” the group wrote in its most recent report.
Freedom of the press is also under attack in Chad. “Of late, journalists have been subjected to threats and violence by security forces while covering streets protests against the government’s austerity measures,” according to Reporters Without Borders’ most recent World Press Freedom Index.
Only 22 percent of Chadians can read and write. The country has the sixth-highest infant mortality rate in the world.
In short, Chad would appear to be entirely out of step with Israeli ideals.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu made the effort to fly thousands of miles to N’Djamena to celebrate the resumption of diplomatic relations and to heap praise on Déby, who has ruled the country for nearly 30 years. He took power in a 1990 rebellion, and has survived a series of coup attempts.
“Chad is a very important country and a very important country for Israel,” Netanyahu said at the rather chaotically organized press appearance during which the renewal of ties was declared.
Speaking at the presidential palace — an opulent building in an otherwise desolate part of the capital — Netanyahu hailed the new-born partnership, which will try to “forge a prosperous and secure future for our countries and in a larger sense for Africa and beyond.”
Addressing Déby directly, he went on: “You have a vision, of how to raise the possibilities for your people, for your country and for your region and I’m your partner in that,” he said.
Why did Netanyahu go to such length to adulate the leader of a country that, on the surface, has very little to offer to Israel?
Diplomacy, trade, aviation… politics
When Israel renewed diplomatic ties with Guinea, a Muslim country in West Africa, in July 2016, Netanyahu did not fly to the capital for an official ceremony. Neither did he head to Nicaragua when Jerusalem resumed formal relations with the Central American country in March 2017.
There are several possible reasons for why Chad merited a prime ministerial visit.
Cynics will note that it’s election season, surmising that when Netanyahu announced his intention to go to N’Djamena in late November, he was aware that the Knesset would not hold out much longer. Improving Israel’s international standing is one of his key campaign messages, and what underscores that point better than restoring ties with foreign countries?
A more charitable explanation is an Israeli desire to increase trade with Chad, with a focus on defense deals.
“There is a lot that we can do together and we discussed how to deepen our cooperation in every field beginning with security, but also agriculture, food, water, energy, health and many more,” Netanyahu declared on Sunday.
Another obvious key factor in Netanyahu’s wooing of Chad is the fact that it is considered an Islamic country — although only 52% of the population is Muslim.
“It’s significant for us that Chad is a country with a Muslim majority that seeks the friendship of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “There are many such countries, but in Africa this is particularly significant. And we seek the friendship of other countries in Africa and I’m glad to see… that others are following in your footsteps.
“Israel is making inroads into the Islamic world,” the premier proclaimed.
Less than 24 hours after Netanyahu returned from his whirlwind visit to Chad, Israeli officials told reporters that Mali, 95% Muslim, is the next African country in line for a rapprochement with the Jewish state.
But the most important reason for Netanyahu’s efforts to restore ties with Chad may have been the country’s strategic location and the opportunities it may open for Israeli aviation. Having gained overfly rights from Chad, Netanyahu is very close to being able to shave off several hours for Israeli planes headed to West Africa and Latin America.
All that needs to be done now is convince Sudan to allow Israeli aircraft to cross over the country’s northeastern tip. The fact that Sudan gave Netanyahu’s Boeing 767 a green light to fly over South Sudan, whose airspace it controls, indicates that such a breakthrough could be imminent.
“We are opening new possibilities for flying over countries in key areas. Flight routes are shortened, and flight costs are reduced,” Netanyahu said Monday at the opening of the Ramon Airport near Eilat.
Before Gaddafi, a Chadian wreath at Herzl’s grave
Before Chad severed diplomatic relations with Israel on November 28, 1972, bilateral relations were actually quite warm.
Jerusalem recognized the Republic of Chad on August 10, 1960, the very day it gained independence from France.
Five years later, then-president Francois Tombalbaye, a Catholic, spent several days in Israel, meeting with top officials and laying a wreath at the grave of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl.
At the time, Chad still defied Arab pressure to cut ties with the Jewish state.
“Chad will not permit herself to be dragged into the Arab-Israeli dispute,” Tombalbaye declared during his 1965 visit to Jerusalem. “We will strongly oppose any attempts to embroil us in the dispute or to turn us into a tool of any country which is interested in exploiting this conflict for its own interest.”
But seven years later, Tombalbaye did cave to the pressure, which came mainly, but not only, from Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. (Half a year earlier, Uganda had also abruptly ended hitherto friendly relations with Israel.)
Tombalbaye closed the small Israeli mission in Chad because of an “offer of $92 million in Libyan loans… and promises of aid from King Faisal of Saudi Arabia,” according to The New York Times. In addition to the cash, Libya rewarded Chad by cutting off arms supplies to anti-government insurgents.
Citing “reliable Israeli sources,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported at the time that Tombalbaye has asked Israel for $7 million “to tide him over; but Israel cannot compete with Libyan and Saudi Arabian wealth.”
Jerusalem reasoned then that Black African leaders would quickly grow wary of Gaddafi, and hoped to soon be able to restore the ties he’d severed, according to the article.
In the case of Chad, it has taken 47 years.