Israel and the Horn of Africa: What are the Odds with the Countries That Still Don’t Recognize Israel?

Irit Back evaluates the odds that countries of the Horn of Africa will establish some form of diplomatic relations with Israel in the near future. This article is part of "The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel".

Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony
Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony, September 15, 2020. The White House [public domain].

In view of the recent changes in Israel’s ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, it is worth examining the prospects for diplomatic relations with additional countries that do not recognize Israel. Of the 29 UN member states that still do not have full diplomatic relations with Israel, nine are African countries: Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Libya, Mauritania, Somalia, and Tunisia (all also members of the Arab League), as well as Mali and Niger. This article will evaluate the odds that countries that have not recognized Israel yet will establish some form of diplomatic relations with it in the near future. It will focus on the countries of the Horn of Africa, a region of particular strategic significance for Israel, due to its proximity to the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Gulf of Aden.

In the early 1960s, of all the newly independent African states south of the Sahara, only Somalia and Mauritania refused to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Although most African states severed their diplomatic relations with Israel in 1972-1973, particularly after the Yom Kippur War, bilateral relations with Israel were gradually resumed after the 1980s. Even before the most recent wave of normalization in the Arab World, Israel has had significant success in the past decade in renewing and deepening relations in Africa.

As noted, due to its geostrategic importance and geographical proximity, the Horn of Africa was always a crucial target of Israeli diplomatic interest (and concerns). While the diplomatic relations with two of the Horn’s countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are quite stable today, relations with two remaining countries, Somalia and Djibouti, are much more complicated. Somalia is arguably the most hardline African state south of the Sahara on the issue of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. This turbulent, war-torn country, which since 1991 has been repeatedly defined as an extreme case of a failed state, has traditionally voted against Israel in various international fora, regardless of the issue at hand. In 2019, a Somali Director at the Foreign Ministry, Abdullahi Dool, was fired over controversial tweets he posted concerning Israel and Palestine. While there have been occasional rumors about preliminary contacts between Israelis and Somalis at various levels, they are consistently denied by the Somali side. A broader look at the diplomatic possibilities between Israel and Somalia may, however, illuminate another option for establishing diplomatic relations, which is Somaliland.

Somaliland is a self-declared country since 1991, that the international and African diplomatic communities consider to be part of Somalia. In many respects, it is considered a rare success story within the Horn’s turbulent reality. Despite political isolation and limited foreign investment, Somaliland demonstrates impressive political, economic, and technological achievements, and is even considered by some experts as the only performing democracy in the Horn of Africa. In comparison to Somalia’s vehement opposition to any form of diplomatic relations with Israel and its unequivocal support for Palestinian positions, many official and unofficial voices in Somaliland stress its commonalities with Israel – both being “success stories despite the odds” – and embrace the potential benefits of economic and technological cooperation with Israel. For Israel, the potential benefits of cooperation with strategically located Somaliland are obvious. At the same time, the chances that Israel will become one of the first countries to officially recognize Somaliland are scant, as such a step could be considered a provocation (recognizing separatist entities) that would threaten Israel’s diplomatic aspirations in Africa.

The second Horn country which remains adamant in its refusal to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, is Djibouti. With less than one million citizens, the tiny country that became independent from France only in 1977 has gradually become one of the Horn’s most strategic and economic “hot spots.” Apart from its strategic alliances with Western powers that maintain military bases there (foremost, Camp Lemonnier, a former base of the French Foreign Legion leased by Djibouti to the USA in 2002, and currently home to many international and African forces), China recently inaugurated a military port in Djibouti, and has expanded its activities and investment to other sectors, including infrastructure construction. Interest in Djibouti’s geostrategic location and economic potential (as a major port on the Horn) extends beyond the USA, France and China, to regional actors such as Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, who view it as pivotal in their competition for regional preeminence.

Djibouti’s refusal to establish diplomatic ties with Israel was recently reinforced in November 2020 by President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who stated in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The conditions aren’t ripe. All we ask that the government [of Israel] do is make one gesture of peace, and we will make 10 in return. But I’m afraid they’ll never do that.” At the same time, the President added that Djibouti had no problem with Jews as a people, or with Israelis as a nation: “Some of them even come to Djibouti on business with their passport, and Djibouti’s citizens have been able to travel to Israel for 25 years now.” Thus, it seemed that in contrast to Somalia, Djibouti holds a somewhat more pragmatic stance.

There is, however, another issue indirectly related to Djibouti that might indicate another path forward for Israel’s diplomatic efforts in Africa. This is the sphere of the growing significance of regional organizations for economic, political, ecological, and other forms of cooperation and collaboration between African countries. In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, regional cooperation became more noticeable and extended with increasing frequency into areas such as conflict resolution and intervention in democratic transitions of many African countries.

Since 1986, the headquarters of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have been located in Djibouti. The establishment of this regional organization, whose member states are Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, and Eritrea, was motivated primarily by environmental reasons, yet the organization is increasingly involved in security and conflict resolution efforts. One of IGAD’s major achievements was its role as a mediator in various phases of the negotiations between the north and south in Sudan, from the initial talks to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, which led the foundation to the independence of South Sudan in July 2011. Later, IGAD effectively mediated between the rival parties in the civil war in South Sudan that broke out at 2013.

One might wonder how the mediation efforts of a regional organization such as IGAD are relevant to Israel’s diplomatic prospects in the Horn of Africa? One of the major concerns of IGAD member states is environmental crises. Most of them share common vulnerabilities, such as 80% arid and semi-arid lowlands, which, combined with a series of ecological disasters, led to recurring waves of famine since the 1970s. As a pioneer and innovative force in areas such as renewable energy, agro-tech, and water management, Israel’s cooperation with IGAD could offer a foothold from which it might establish stronger ties with IGAD member states, including those that currently refuse to establish relations with Israel. So far, Israel’s cooperation with IGAD is scant, or even nonexistent.

Strengthening its ties with IGAD – as well as other regional organizations in Africa, such as ECOAWS in the West and SADC in the South – could also serve Israeli aspirations to regaining observer status in the African Union (AU). In fact, Israel was an observer at the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but former Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi blocked a renewal of Israel’s observer status when the AU was created in 2002. As an observer at the AU, Israel could mobilize diplomatic support, build strategic partnerships, and gain access to African markets.

Israel’s recent diplomatic agreements revealed, however, that Israel’s prospects in Africa, both in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the continent, are not too bright at the moment. Its agreement with Morocco was considered by some observers as a “slap in the face of the African Union” (due to its embroilment with the U.S. recognition of Morocco’s claims in Western Sahara). These prospects are obviously dependent on broader future developments, such as the Biden Administration’s policies regarding Africa, Israel’s foreign policy priorities in the aftermath of its upcoming March 2021 elections, and the attitudes of leaders and public opinion in various African countries toward Israeli-African collaboration.