Landmark Israel-Africa summit canceled following boycott threats

Landmark Israel-Africa summit canceled following boycott threats

Host Togo asks to postpone 54-nation gathering to a date ‘agreed upon between the two countries’; Jerusalem vows to continue efforts in continent

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with African leaders in Uganda on July 4, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with African leaders in Uganda on July 4, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Next month’s Israel-Africa summit has been called off at the request of the president of Togo, where the event was set to take place, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Monday, following attempts by the Palestinians and several African countries to derail the gathering.

The landmark summit, which was meant to bring 54 countries on the continent to the Togolese capital of Lome on October 23-27, will be moved “to a date to be agreed upon between the two countries,” a statement from the Foreign Ministry said.

The website set up for the summit read simply “postponed.”

Togo’s President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe stressed that “significant preparations and complex planning was needed to ensure the important event’s success,” the statement said, adding that he had spoken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before making the decision.

Gnassingbe “praised and thanked the prime minister for his determination to strengthen relations,” between the two countries, according to the Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé during the ECOWAS summit in Monrovia, Liberia, June 4, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

The cancellation is a blow to Netanyahu’s efforts to foster stronger relations with African nations and other countries previously seen as hostile toward Israel. In recent months the prime minister has embarked on several trips to countries that have never, or rarely, been visited by Israeli leaders, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Australia, Singapore, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Liberia. On Sunday he departed for a week long trip to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, becoming the first Israeli premier to visit South America.

Under the motto “Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel,” Netanyahu has declared diplomatic outreach to Africa as one of his signature foreign policy objectives. Offering African states development aid, economic cooperation, and anti-terrorism know-how, Netanyahu aims to use support from the continent to break the traditional anti-Israel majority in international organizations such as the UN.

Last month, Israel played down pro-Palestinian efforts to obstruct the summit, with officials expressing confidence that Netanyahu would meet with African leaders keen on promoting political and economic ties with the Jewish state there.

“This is not taking place without contrary pressure,” Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers, referring to the summit. “Various pressures have been placed on the Togolese president to cancel the conference. These pressures are the best testimony to the success of our policy, of Israel’s presence in Africa.”

In addition to strong opposition to the summit from Ramallah, Morocco was leading African efforts to cancel the event.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with leaders from Africa, in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In June, King Mohammed VI opted not to participate in a meeting between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that was attended by Netanyahu, even though Rabat seeks to become a member of the organization. The monarch “disagree[d] with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being invited,” the Moroccan Foreign Ministry said at the time, adding that he “wishes his first visit to a ECOWAS summit not take place in a context of tension and controversy.”

South Africa, too, made efforts to derail the summit. In July, the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress, issued a “discussion document” calling for efforts to sabotage Israel’s rapprochement with African states in general and the planned meeting in Togo in particular.

Following the decision to postpone the summit, the Foreign Ministry said no pressure would make Israel back down from its work to strengthen the relationship with African nations.

“Israel will continue its growing efforts in Africa as it has done in recent years,” the statement said.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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