In Nairobi, FM said to meet with leader of African country with no ties to Israel

Eli Cohen visits Kenya to attend African Union biannual coordination meeting; Foreign Ministry says Israel in ‘normalization contacts’ with Niger, Mali, Mauritania

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends an event at the Foreign Ministry  in Jerusalem, May 17, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends an event at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 17, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met with a number of African officials in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi on Sunday, where the Israeli minister was on an official trip to attend a biannual coordination meeting of the African Union.

Cohen’s visit was also intended to boost ties with Africa amid “the Iranian attempt to expand its activities on the continent,” according to his office.

Hebrew-language media reported on Monday morning that Cohen met with the leader of an unnamed African county that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, on the sidelines of the midyear summit.

The meeting took place on the condition that the official and the country would not be named, Ynet reported.

The Foreign Ministry told Ynet that Israel was engaged in “normalization contacts with several African countries including Niger, Mali and Mauritania.”

At the summit, Cohen met with Kenyan Foreign Minister Alfred Mutua and other unnamed African diplomats and officials, his office said.

In a press statement, Cohen thanked Kenyan President William Ruto and Mutua “for their efforts to promote Israel’s position on the continent and to open doors for the State of Israel in countries on the continent with which we do not yet have diplomatic relations.”

Delegates attend the 5th mid-year coordination meeting of the African Union, at the United Nations (UN) offices in Gigiri, Nairobi, on July 16, 2023. (SIMON MAINA / AFP)

In the bilateral meetings with his Kenyan counterpart and other African officials, “the ministers discussed strengthening the ties between Israel and Kenya and the African continent and expanding the circle of peace with other African countries,” Cohen’s office said.

The foreign minister also said his diplomatic visit to Nairobi was “of regional and strategic importance against the background of Iran’s attempts to expand its influence on the continent.”

“Kenya’s regional position makes it a key partner of Israel in the East African region. Kenya’s membership on the board of the [UN’s] International Atomic Energy Agency allows it to influence the international supervision of Iranian violations” of its nuclear agreements.

Last week, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi embarked on a rare, multi-day tour in Africa in the latest diplomatic efforts to reduce its isolation by forging new alliances.

Iran has stepped up its diplomacy in recent months to reduce its isolation and offset the impact of crippling sanctions reimposed since the 2018 withdrawal of the United States from a painstakingly negotiated nuclear deal.

The three-day trip, which includes Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, was the first by an Iranian president to Africa in 11 years. Raisi led a delegation that included Iran’s foreign minister, other government officials, as well as senior businesspeople.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (L) attends a press conference alongside Kenyan President William Ruto (R) at the State House in Nairobi on July 12, 2023. (SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Africa is a “continent of opportunities” and a great platform for Iranian products, Raisi told journalists in a briefing last Wednesday. He didn’t take questions.

Iran’s leader specifically mentioned Africa’s mineral resources and Iran’s petrochemical experience, but the five memoranda of understanding signed on Wednesday by the Islamic Republic and Kenya appeared not to address either one. Instead, they addressed information, communication and technology; fisheries; animal health and livestock production and investment promotion.

Ruto called Iran a “critical strategic partner” and “global innovation powerhouse.”

In his statement Monday, Cohen said Israel would “continue to strengthen economic ties with Kenya in the fields of agriculture, tourism and cyber[security].”

His office said Israel and Kenya have strengthened their economic ties in recent months “and that cooperation in the field of cyber defense and the expansion of charter flights between Israel and Kenya during the tourist season were on the agenda” during the trip.

Earlier this year, an Israeli observer delegation was kicked out of the African Union summit opening ceremony in Addis Ababa, sparking a diplomatic spat over Israel’s observer status at the 55-member bloc.

The African Union then said Israel’s observer status at the bloc had been suspended pending a discussion on its continued role as observer, and therefore it had not been invited to the weekend summit.

Israel blamed the incident on Algeria and South Africa and accused them of coordinating the incident.

The issue of Israel’s observer status has caused deep discord in the bloc. Israel was granted observer status in 2021, but at last year’s summit, a debate on the issue was suspended in a bid to avoid a vote that would create an unprecedented rift in the Union. The AU chairman created a six-country committee to examine the issue.

Israel and its allies in the organization say that its observer status was never rescinded, but its foes, backed by AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat, argued that it is suspended until the committee comes back with a recommendation.

AFP and AP contributed to this report.

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