By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the visiting Chadian President on Sunday that he expects to make more trips to Arab countries in the near future after going to Oman last month.
Israel only has diplomatic ties with two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, though Netanyahu has hinted at warmer relations with Gulf Arab states that Israel views as natural allies against regional powerhouse Iran.
Chadian President Idriss Deby arrived in Israel on Sunday for the first official visit by a leader of the Central African country that severed diplomatic ties with Israel in 1972.
“We discussed … the great changes that are taking place in the Arab world in its relations with Israel,” Netanyahu said, adding that there will be more visits to Arab countries very soon, though he did not name specific countries.
Netanyahu and his ministers have visited a number of Gulf states in the past few weeks.
The Netanyahu government has been investing in outreach to Africa, where some countries previously warm to Israel have kept their distance since its occupation of the Palestinian territories in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel has diplomatic ties with 32 of the continent’s 54 countries.
Deby said his visit was “historic” for both countries and that it “could facilitate the turning of a new page in relations between us” but added that even with a renewal of ties, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could no be ignored.
“Of course, the renewal of diplomatic ties between us, which I very much want, is not something that can make the Palestinian issue disappear,” Deby said in French through a translator.
Unofficial contacts between Israel and Chad have been ongoing for an extended period, Deby said. One source told Reuters that the visit is focussed on security, adding that Israel has supplied Chad’s army with weaponry and other equipment this year to help in its fight against rebels.
Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior Palestinian official, voiced displeasure over Deby’s visit.
“All countries and institutions must boycott the extremist government of Israel and impose a siege on it because of its settlement activities, its occupation of Palestinian land,” Youssef said.
Deby, 66, has been in power since 1990 and has been an ally of the West in a fight against Islamist militants in West Africa. However, impoverished Chad itself faces destabilising forces on multiple fronts, including jihadists with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State.
He is also trying to prevent an influx of militants fleeing the Libyan conflict and in January closed Chad’s border with its northern neighbour.
In July 2016 Deby hosted the then-director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, for exploratory talks on improving bilateral relations. Gold said on Israel Radio on Sunday that his Chadian hosts told him they had cut off ties in 1972 under Libyan pressure, a factor removed with the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Madjiasra Nako in N’Djamena; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and David Goodman)