Is­rael’s man in West Africa

Paul Hirsch­son re­cently com­pleted his work as am­bas­sador to Sene­gal and six other coun­tries. Back in the Mid­dle East, he dis­cusses Is­rael’s in­creas­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions and why Jews and Africans share a unique his­tory

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

In the last days of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, Egypt spon­sored UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 2334, condemning Is­rael for the “con­struc­tion and ex­pan­sion of set­tle­ments.” Un­der pres­sure from the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Egyp­tians with­drew the res­o­lu­tion on a cold Thurs­day night. It was De­cem­ber 22, just days re­mained un­til Trump would be in of­fice and Is­rael hoped the res­o­lu­tion wouldn’t be passed. At Is­rael’s em­bassy in Dakar, the cap­i­tal of Sene­gal, am­bas­sador Paul Hirsch­son had packed up and gone home for the night. He re­calls how “lit­er­ally hours be­fore vot­ing, the Egyp­tians with­drew the pro­posal.” The res­o­lu­tion was im­por­tant for Sene­gal be­cause the coun­try was one of the non-permanent mem­bers of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. It also chairs the UN Com­mit­tee on the Ex­er­cise of the Inalien­able Rights of the Pales­tinian Peo­ple. Hirsch­son un­der­stood that Sene­gal would vote for the res­o­lu­tion but when he went home to the mod­est am­bas­sador’s res­i­dence on Thurs­day night, things seemed to be mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion.

In­stead, 12 hours later, he woke up at 6 a.m. to hear that Sene­gal, New Zealand, Venezuela and Malaysia had taken up spon­sor­ship of UNSCR 2334. “It’s im­por­tant to note Sene­gal wasn’t on its own, they had in­di­cated they wanted to up­grade the re­la­tion­ship [with Is­rael]. And this isn’t how friends be­have.”

Sene­gal’s Pres­i­dent Macky Sall had just re­turned from a his­toric visit to Paris. The Jewish state had made it clear it didn’t want the Sene­galese to spon­sor the res­o­lu­tion, although Jerusalem fully un­der­stood they would vote for it. Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu was livid and sought to re­spond harshly to Dakar. Soon Hirsch­son was on a plane home, re­called for “con­sul­ta­tions.” He in­formed the Sene­galese that Is­rael was can­cel­ing a trip by Sene­gal’s for­eign min­is­ter sched­uled for Jan­uary 2017. Is­rael also sus­pended ac­tiv­ity by Is­rael’s Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Co­op­er­a­tion (MASHAV).

If in the past Is­rael has ac­cepted that coun­tries it has re­la­tions with would spon­sor res­o­lu­tions condemning it at the UN, De­cem­ber 2016 was a new day. In Jan­uary, Trump would be in of­fice. Now the world would see, Is­rael takes these things se­ri­ously.

I’d been in Sene­gal in March 2016, hosted by Hirsch­son to see the in­cred­i­ble work Is­rael was do­ing in West Africa. It was a whirl­wind tour. We met a former prime min­is­ter, a former pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and the min­is­ter of agri­cul­ture, and toured Dakar. The city is one of Africa’s great cul­tural and eco­nomic hubs. Reaching out into the At­lantic Ocean and shaped like an anvil, it is a link with the West and hosts se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion op­er­a­tions de­signed to keep West Africa safe from the threat of ter­ror­ism in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. It is also home to a unique MASHAV-sup­ported project help­ing Sene­galese learn drip ir­ri­ga­tion. Be­fore I left, we vis­ited agri­cul­tural projects Is­rael was sup­port­ing, small farms east of Dakar in the plains of Sene­gal, nes­tled be­neath the gi­ant baobab trees. Two years later, I wanted to see what Hirsch­son had learned in West Africa and how Is­rael’s re­la­tions were pro­ceed­ing.

Sene­gal is a Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­try, but its unique form of Is­lam, cen­tered on large Sufi broth­er­hoods, makes it a spe­cial place where Is­lam in Africa has cre­ated a fas­ci­nat­ing cul­ture – very dif­fer­ent from the one found to the north in Morocco or Al­ge­ria and from what takes place in Niger or other coun­tries to the south­east.

Hirsch­son was Is­rael’s man in Dakar from Au­gust 2015 to Au­gust 2018. “I’ve been in­ter­ested for a long time in Africa and the Arab world,” he says, over a cof­fee at Aroma near the For­eign Min­istry. He’s back in Is­rael, back to the grind of Jerusalem, away from the fla­vors and color of West Africa. His am­bas­sador­ship was a kind of re­turn to the con­ti­nent.

“I grew up in Africa and trav­eled the world and did busi­ness,” he re­counts. He wanted to be posted to Dakar. “Be­ing in the For­eign Min­istry, one of our ma­jor chal­lenges is our re­la­tion­ship with the Arab world, although to­day we have fan­tas­tic stuff go­ing on with us and Egypt and in­ter­est­ing work with Jor­dan. Sene­gal is not an Arab coun­try, but it is on the cusp of the Arab world and is a Mus­lim coun­try.” It’s neigh­bors with the Arab League. It is 95% Mus­lim, he points out.

He wanted to go to Sene­gal be­cause he saw it as a linch­pin in Is­rael’s con­nec­tions to Africa, the Is­lamic and Arab worlds.

“I saw and iden­ti­fied that Sene­gal was headed for a term on the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.” He jokes now that “that ended up in a train wreck.” Nev­er­the­less, at the time “they were go­ing to be on the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil six months af­ter I ar­rived and six months be­fore I left, so the tim­ing was im­por­tant.”

Although be­ing am­bas­sador to Sene­gal is an im­por­tant po­si­tion on its own, Hirsch­son wouldn’t just be deal­ing with Sene­gal, but seven other coun­tries in West Africa. This would in­clude Mali, which was un­of­fi­cially cov­ered by his ap­point­ment, and Gam­bia, Guinea-Bis­sau, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde.

Re­cently, Chad’s pres­i­dent vis­ited – demon­strat­ing how the Jewish state’s role in Africa is an im­por­tant diplo­matic fron­tier where Jerusalem is mak­ing gains in re­cent years. Re­ports in­di­cate that Is­rael may be im­prov­ing outreach to Mali, in West Africa and Su­dan; Mali is a neigh­bor of Sene­gal where Hirsch­son was posted.

IS­RAEL AND Sene­gal have long and his­toric re­la­tions. In the 1950s, when Is­rael was pur­su­ing a “pe­riph­ery” for­eign pol­icy to carve out re­la­tions with coun­tries sur­round­ing the Arab states, which were at war with Is­rael, Africa was seen as won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to make new friends. This was par­tic­u­larly true be­cause African states were emerg­ing from bru­tal Euro­pean colo­nial­ism and Is­rael was a coun­try that had also emerged from the fires of Auschwitz and Europe’s his­toric an­ti­semitism. Is­rael had a nat­u­ral con­nec­tion to these coun­tries, some of its lead­ers, such as Golda Meir, thought.

In 1959, the Jewish state’s first diplo­mat ar­rived in Dakar. In 1960, Is­rael be­came the fourth coun­try to rec­og­nize Sene­gal’s in­de­pen­dence. But things took a sour turn in 1973, in the wake of the Yom Kip­pur War when many African states, seek­ing to sup­port the Arab League, sev­ered re­la­tions with Is­rael. In 1994, in the wake of the Oslo Ac­cords and the end of the Cold War, Is­raeli diplo­mats were again in Africa and Sene­gal.

“We re­newed re­la­tions with those coun­tries, ex­cept for Guinea. Guinea had bro­ken re­la­tions in 1967 and it was a spe­cial case; we only re­newed re­la­tions with them two years ago,” Hirsch­son re­calls.

De­spite be­ing an im­por­tant diplo­matic post due to its role at the UN and also as a base of work for re­la­tions with the rest of West Africa, Sene­gal does not have ma­jor trade re­la­tions with Is­rael and few tourists go back and forth. One way that Is­rael can help Sene­gal is through its in­no­va­tive agri­cul­tural ex­per­tise.

“My pre­de­ces­sors fo­cused on dif­fer­ent things. One did a lot of cul­tural work. One did a lot of de­vel­op­ment aid through MASHAV. And one did eco­nomic work,” says Hirsch­son. “All of them did a mix. And all of them ad­dressed the hard-core diplo­matic stuff.”

Dur­ing his ten­ure, MASHAV em­barked on sev­eral new projects. Be­cause Is­rael and drip ir­ri­ga­tion have be­come syn­ony­mous among agri­cul­tural

ex­perts, this was a place Is­rael could help. Nev­er­the­less, the am­bas­sador had some hes­i­ta­tion about how ef­fec­tive aid projects could be.

“It’s an in­dus­try,” he says, re­fer­ring to the big in­ter­na­tional donors and projects that tend to never be fin­ished. For 60 years, there have been NGOs and coun­tries in­vest­ing in projects, but it is not mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion. Peo­ple are los­ing pa­tience with these prom­ises lo­cally af­ter two gen­er­a­tions since in­de­pen­dence.

“We are in a race against time. Even if things are im­prov­ing, they are im­prov­ing less than in OECD [Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment] coun­tries. The gap is grow­ing. The av­er­age salary is $80 a month; you can go to Paris or Lon­don and earn that in a day,” he notes, re­fer­ring to the phe­nom­e­non of large-scale refugee and mi­grant move­ments to Europe. So de­vel­op­ment aid does not seem to be achiev­ing what it pur­ports to do.

But for the am­bas­sador, ir­ri­ga­tion was just one part of a much more far-reaching puz­zle. Diplo­matic goals needed a spot­light.

“We had built up a good name,” he ex­plains, but now it was time to take it to the next level. “When I got there I was more in­ter­ested in the diplo­matic agenda than the de­vel­op­ment agenda, and I had the feel­ing we had enough good­will we were not lever­ag­ing.”

So Hirsch­son pushed for re­la­tions with Guinea, and he also wanted these coun­tries that Is­rael did have re­la­tions with to send am­bas­sadors to Is­rael. Their posts were open.

“None of them had head-of-state-to-head-of-state meet­ings or min­is­te­rial vis­its. In Guinea-Bis­sau, my pre­de­ces­sor had never pre­sented cre­den­tials. We hadn’t had a visit for nearly six years.”

You can’t have a proper con­ver­sa­tion if you aren’t there, Hirsch­son stresses. Sierra Leone was re­cov­er­ing from Ebola and he wanted to do more there. An Is­raeli NGO named Is­raAID was work­ing there.

“I started push­ing for im­ple­ment­ing those things. Sierra Leone ap­pointed an am­bas­sador and so did Sene­gal. We had a for­eign min­is­ter visit that was post­poned but hap­pened.”

Hirsch­son then lists a va­ri­ety of achieve­ments. Gam­bia and Guinea Bis­sau said they would ap­point am­bas­sadors. The pres­i­dent of Sierra Leone came to Is­rael, the prime min­is­ter of Guinea-Bis­sau and the for­eign min­is­ter of Sene­gal came to visit. The cre­den­tials pre­sented by sev­eral of these coun­tries to Pres­i­dent Reu­ven Rivlin also men­tioned the Pres­i­dent’s Res­i­dence in Jerusalem, which Hirsch­son sees as sym­bolic. “On one hand, one could ar­gue these things are not rel­e­vant; on the other hand, these are coun­tries in the Mus­lim world that haven’t paid attention to Is­rael. We aren’t ex­actly big donors, they don’t feel ob­li­gated, and these are sig­nif­i­cant [vis­its].”

At the UN and in in­ter­na­tional fo­rums, the bur­geon­ing re­la­tions also bore fruit.

“We saw with four of the six coun­tries, in­di­ca­tions of a change, a move from ‘against Is­rael’ to ab­stain­ing or be­ing ‘ab­sent’” at cer­tain votes. Hirsch­son lob­bied hard. “For in­stance, Ivory Coast said they are no longer vot­ing against Is­rael.” The changes came as Is­rael was plac­ing a larger em­pha­sis on Africa. This in­cluded a trip by Ne­tanyahu and a speech at the ECOWAS in­dus­trial sum­mit in 2017. “Ne­tanyahu was the first non-African head of state guest of honor and key­note speaker at the 51st sum­mit.”

Hirsch­son says that Is­rael has a unique con­ver­sa­tion in Africa.

“I would speak about my­self, that our first ex­pe­ri­ence [as Jews] was be­ing slaves in Egypt 3,000 years ago and then refugees in Africa 2,500 years ago. And it was one of the places that re­ceived us de­cently. Our third en­gage­ment was 500 years ago, ex­actly at the time of the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion, when the Euro­pean ex­plor­ers were go­ing out to Africa and the New World and Jews came to Sene­gal and Cape Verde and else­where. And our fourth en­gage­ment with Africa is in mod­ern times.”

This unique con­ver­sa­tion is dif­fer­ent than the one that Euro­pean states might have with African coun­tries, where they have to ad­mit their role in the bru­tal col­o­niza­tion and en­slave­ment of mil­lions. Off the coast of Dakar there is a small is­land where hun­dreds of thou­sands of slaves were shipped to the New World through the in­fa­mous door of no re­turn. Jews have a sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive to that of these coun­tries that were vic­tims. “It’s the same nar­ra­tive of slav­ery, ex­ile, be­ing con­quered, refugees, re­gain­ing sovereignty,” says Hirsch­son. “So not only did we speak about dif­fer­ent things but we spoke to them in a dif­fer­ent way.”

On De­cem­ber 1, 2016, Gam­bia held a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The small coun­try is shaped like a snake be­cause its bor­ders run along a river. It is also fully sur­rounded by Sene­gal, and Sene­gal there­fore has an in­ter­est in its se­cu­rity. From 1994, it had been run by Yahya Jam­meh, who had de­clared it an “Is­lamic Repub­lic” in 2015. A year later, sure he would win, he held elec­tions. How­ever, Adama Bar­row, an op­po­si­tion can­di­date, re­ceived the most votes. Jam­meh refused to con­cede and Bar­row fled to Sene­gal, where he was sworn in as pres­i­dent in ex­ile on Jan­uary 19.

“It hap­pened at the same time as the UN crises,” Hirsch­son re­calls. “I sat with the Sene­gal For­eign Min­istry af­ter the elec­tion.”

The Sene­galese am­bas­sador in Ban­jul phoned in the sur­pris­ing re­sults. When Jam­meh refused to go, Sene­gal de­cided to act. “They were fed up with Jam­meh, West Africa was fed up with him, he made a mis­take in ar­ro­gance, he al­lowed proper demo­cratic elec­tions and thought he would win them. He was over­whelmed by ar­ro­gance af­ter 22 years in power. And he lost.”

ECOWAS (The Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States), the UN, African Union and in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity were mo­bi­lized to sup­port an in­ter­ven­tion. Nige­ria said its air force would par­tic­i­pate. Even­tu­ally 7,000 men were called up to face Gam­bia’s tiny 2,000-man army.

“This was a spec­tac­u­lar en­force­ment of democ­racy by a re­gional group­ing.” Jam­meh’s forces were swept aside and Bar­row re­turned to Gam­bia on Jan­uary 26. “There are problems in Gam­bia to­day. So the Sene­galese se­cu­rity is ac­tive in Gam­bia pro­tect­ing the pres­i­dent,” says Hirsch­son.

IN THE lead-up to the UN cri­sis with Sene­gal, the am­bas­sador was try­ing to get the Sene­galese to sched­ule a ma­jor state visit and ap­point an am­bas­sador to Is­rael.

“I ran, I chased un­til they did it and we got the for­eign min­is­ter to visit.” The prob­lem at the UN in late De­cem­ber al­most scut­tled some of the work Hirsch­son had put in. He had spo­ken to Dakar about the ex­pec­ta­tion that they would not spon­sor the UN res­o­lu­tion. “Those 12 hours af­ter we knew they were spon­sor­ing it, they un­der­stood how much we didn’t want that.”

Up un­til the fi­nal mo­ment, Hirsch­son says he had a hope they might with­draw spon­sor­ship, as Egypt had done. Sene­gal un­der­stood there would be reper­cus­sions.

“Be­fore I left, ba­si­cally as I told them I was be­ing re­called for con­sul­ta­tions, I in­formed them we were can­cel­ing the for­eign min­is­ter’s trip sched­uled for Jan­uary and the am­bas­sador was no longer in­vited to present cre­den­tials. I told them our MASHAV ac­tiv­ity was sus­pended.”

It was the cor­rect decision, Hirsch­son says in ret­ro­spect. With the warmth of a Jerusalem au­tumn peek­ing through the win­dows, the former am­bas­sador sketched out the way Is­rael must op­er­ate in this com­plex world.

“You have all these su­per­pow­ers in the world and we aren’t that, but we are in the next class, we are a sig­nif­i­cant player. We are big enough to­day to be able to stand up and say we aren’t com­fort­able with this or that.” Is­rael no longer has to kow­tow. Is­rael takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for its ac­tions and coun­tries that it has re­la­tions with, such as those in Africa, can do the same. In this case, Sene­gal wanted up­graded re­la­tions with Is­rael. Is­rael has as­sets that can ben­e­fit West Africa, in­clud­ing tech­nol­ogy and hi-tech and ex­per­tise in se­cu­rity.

The brief cri­sis in De­cem­ber 2016 has turned out well for Is­rael-Sene­gal re­la­tions. Sene­gal un­der­stands that its re­la­tions with Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans can run in par­al­lel.

“For one thing, Sene­gal agreed pub­licly to sup­port­ing Is­rael given ob­server sta­tus on the African Union. One day it will hap­pen,” he says.

But not every­thing has re­cov­ered from De­cem­ber.

“We had signed a three-year tri­lat­eral agreement with Italy and Sene­gal. When I ar­rived we did what we were sup­posed to and the other par­ties were a lit­tle slow.” Although the projects moved for­ward, Is­rael didn’t fin­ish the project and then af­ter the five months of crises be­fore Hirsch­son re­turned, the project was put on hold. Nev­er­the­less, more Sene­galese than ever be­fore are com­ing for agri­cul­tural train­ing.

Hirsch­son’s sur­vey of de­vel­op­ments in West Africa goes beyond what is hap­pen­ing in Sene­gal and the de­vel­op­ment of closer re­la­tions be­tween Jerusalem and African states in re­cent years. Many things are chang­ing in Africa that will have longterm con­se­quences. China is mak­ing ma­jor in­vest­ments. The US sees se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion as es­sen­tial in de­feat­ing ter­ror­ism and ex­trem­ism in the Sa­hel, the cli­mate zone be­tween cen­tral Africa and the Sahara. In Niger, hun­dreds of US per­son­nel are help­ing to ad­vise in the fight against ISIS and its al­lies. In Oc­to­ber 2017, four US sol­diers were killed in bat­tle. There have been ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Ivory Coast and Burk­ina Faso.

There has been no ter­ror­ism in Sene­gal, but that doesn’t mean it won’t hap­pen. There are por­ous bor­ders in West Africa and lo­cal tribes and fam­i­lies strad­dle the bor­ders, which were drawn by Euro­pean powers.

“I did not feel threat­ened at any point,” Hirsch­son notes. Sev­eral peo­ple from Sene­gal joined ISIS and there is con­cern that some might try to re­turn. “Be­fore go­ing to Sene­gal I wrote about the Sa­hel; it’s a per­fect place to hide, plan, store and train and or­ga­nize. And those go­ing home to the Maghreb, for them to go down, there is all this hu­man traf­fick­ing and money laun­der­ing and drug traf­fick­ing.”

Sene­gal is acutely aware of the po­ten­tial threat. “That is an­other rea­son they want to up­grade their ties with Is­rael. Is­rael has know-how, ex­pe­ri­ence and tech­nol­ogy par ex­cel­lence, and West Africa wants it,” says the former am­bas­sador.

Look­ing back, he sees a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties in West Africa. “It’s a ne­glected part of the world and that’s a tragedy. There are a bil­lion peo­ple in Africa and in 2050 it will be 2.5 bil­lion, and 70% of world’s pop­u­la­tion growth.” These coun­tries want tech­nol­ogy and know-how. When he first ar­rived, Hirsch­son says, the Euro­pean diplo­mats he met with talked about gov­er­nance and hu­man rights and counter-ter­ror­ism, de­vel­op­ment and eco­nomic re­la­tions. When he re­turned in 2017, af­ter the De­cem­ber UN crises, the con­ver­sa­tion was dif­fer­ent.

“The only thing on the agenda was ‘clan­des­tine im­mi­gra­tion,’” a ref­er­ence to the large num­bers of African mi­grants seek­ing to cross to Europe.

In such an en­vi­ron­ment, with Europe less in­ter­ested in lo­cal problems and China in­vest­ing in ma­jor projects, Is­rael has a unique role to play.

AM­BAS­SADOR PAUL HIRSCH­SON in front of the iconic Mosque of the Divin­ity in Dakar.

THE COR­NICHE coast road in Dakar, one of the most cul­tur­ally and eco­nom­i­cally im­por­tant cities in West Africa.

A BAOBAB tree next to one of the agri­cul­tural farms us­ing Is­raeli drip ir­ri­ga­tion east of Sene­gal.

A BEACH on the is­land of Goree; the is­land was the cen­ter of the slave trade off the coast of Dakar for hun­dreds of years.

SIGN­ING AN agreement in Sene­gal in 2016.

HIRSCH­SON POINTS to West African coun­tries, sev­eral of which he had vis­ited as am­bas­sador.

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