Somalia and Israel: Do all roads lead to Tel Aviv?

Just as Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American politician rises to prominence, for among other things, being courageous in her defense of the rights of Palestinians, murmurs are beginning to emerge of a possibility that the Somali government is warming to the idea of reaching out to Israel.

A post appeared on the 29th March on the Twitter page of Abdullahi Dool, the Director of the Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (who often publishes his personal views on his Twitter page) which said he supports the idea of Somalia building diplomatic ties with Israel. “It is long overdue” it said. This comes on the back of reports that a Somaliland delegation met with Israeli officials, which were recently denied by Mohammed Haji Aden, Minister of Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs.

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Abdullahi Dool messaged me denying he published the tweets and said his Twitter was hacked. That explains the un-diplomatic tone in some of these tweets like the one below. But it did spark quite a concerned response by sections of Somali-Twitter as many Somalis have always felt strongly about this issue. And perhaps rightly so as I was told by a trusted acquintance close to Somali officials that these fears might be valid.

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Somalia does not and has never had formal diplomatic ties with Israel, a principled position it shares with many other Muslim governments. For Somalia prospects are complicated by the limited role Israel played during the Cold War in east Africa.

Israel always had an active but flawed foreign policy in Africa with the continent playing quite a large role in the moral imagination of early Zionists. Theodor Herzl, whose pamphlet, The Jewish State, laid the intellectual foundation for modern Zionism would say “once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”

Golda Mier, a former Israeli stateswoman who is widely considered the architect of Israel’s Africa policy, to the bewilderment of many other Israeli officials, made Africa a linchpin of her program when she was first appointed foreign minister in 1956. She reached out to the continent on the basis of a shared struggle between Jews and Africans which she felt could build bridges between Israel and newly independent African states.

“We Jews share with the African peoples a memory of centuries-long suffering” she said. “For both Jews and Africans alike, such expressions as discrimination, oppression and slavery-these are not mere catchwords… They refer to the torment and degradation we suffered yesterday and today” she continued.

Relations between Israel and post-colonial African states initially blossomed. In 1956 Israel developed diplomatic relations with Ghana, followed by other countries, after which Israel sent a small army of technocrats in 1958, lending its expertise to help them get started on the project of state-building. During her tenure she also voted in favor of condemning South Africa’s apartheid regime — a position which Israel would later retreat from.

But following Golda’s period in charge, realpolitik eventually crept in as political dynamics in Africa changed following the independence African Arab governments in the north as well as other Muslim countries across Asia. Egypt particularly, reached out to other African governments when its territories were occupied following successive defeats by the Israeli military in 67' and 73'.

Already in 1972, Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator severed previously warm ties with Israel. Although Israel didn’t make much of Amin’s decision, by January 1973 Niger, Chad, Congo, and Mali followed suit. The Yom Kippur War in 73’ was the watershed moment when Arab oil producing countries used what King Faisal of Saudi Arabia would describe as the “oil sword”, launching an oil embargo on countries which supported Israel during the war.

Arab governments promised cheap oil and financial aid in a bid to supplant Israeli influence in Sub-Saharan Africa. In May 1973, Egypt sponsored a resolution which passed through the Organisation of African Unity condemning Israel’s occupation of Egyptian territories in the strongest terms. African governments began severing ties with Israel with the exception of Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland. In 1975 the United Nations General Assembly declared Zionism a form of racism, with the support of many Sub-Saharan African governments. Nigeria would only restore ties as late as 1992.

This hostile atmosphere would eventually lead Israel to developing close relations with apartheid governments like South Africa and Rhodesia whose vulnerability forced them to have a pro-West alignment as the Soviet Union sponsored anti-colonial movements across the continent.

In the Horn of Africa Israel always had a more complicated role, given the strategic significance of the region, as well as Israel’s vulnerability in the Red Sea, a reality which was brought into sharp focus after Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran. Egypt’s dependence on the Nile meant a tense relationship with Ethiopia too which is where the Nile originates, a problem which echoes today with Ethiopia’s Grand Rennaisance Dam project. As a result Egypt cultivated a close strategic partnership with Somalia which had irredentist claims to the Ogaden, a Somali majority area in the east of the country referred to by Somalis as Somali Galbeed or Western Somalia.

In 1969, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke the erstwhile Somali president was killed, and the military overthrew the government. Major General Siad Barre came to power. His ideology of choice was an anti-colonial blend of Islam, Somali nationalism and Marxism in a concoction he called “Scientific Socialism”. “There is no chapter, not even a single word, in our Koran that opposes scientific socialism,” he told a press conference with Western and Arab journalists.

His confident and energetic new domestic and foreign policy (with Soviet support) put Somalia in a position not only to threaten Ethiopia but also sponsor a variety of liberation movements across Africa — including movements in two of Israel’s allies Rhodesia and South Africa. In his State of the Nation speech in 1970 Barre said we “shall morally and materially, support the Liberation Movements of Africa until the last of Africa is liberated from the usurpers of Africa’s wealth, dignity and pride.” On that basis he would also condemn Anwar Sadat’s ‘peace initiative’ with Israel.

In 1974 with Egyptian support Somalia would become the eighth African state to join the Arab League. Ethiopia balanced the Somali-Egyptian-Soviet alliance in east Africa by developing close relations with Israel and the West, a relationship Israel would consider its most strategic in Africa. The relationship went further between Ethiopia and Israel however. Ethiopia had a small indigenous Jewish community (Falasha), Emperor Haile Selassie considered himself the “Lion of Judah” a testament to the Jewish ancestry of his family and Israel provided training to the Imperial Ethiopian Army.

After decades of tension along the disputed Somali-Ethiopian border, Somalia would take advantage of her military superiority and instability in Ethiopia to unsuccessfully invade it with the hope of liberating the Ogaden in 1977. This war could have been consequential for Israel as the Emperor’s government, Israel’s linchpin in Africa, was overthrown after a revolution in Ethiopia brought Mengistu’s Communist Soviet aligned Derg militia to power. A decisive defeat for Ethiopia would mean Israel would be totally exposed by a ring of hostile countries at the gateway to the Red Sea. In an interview in Kuwait, Barre even accussed the Israelis of fighting with the Ethiopians in the Ogaden and training their troops in Asmara.

The Soviet’s attempted to mediate the conflict but eventually sided with Ethiopia, persuading the Cubans to support the effort to eject the Somali National Army. Somalia recalibrated when it lost Soviet support, terminated its relationship and expelled them. Barre, a “recent convert to the West” as a New York Times article would describe him, attempted to re-align his foreign policy but didn’t get much sympathy at first.

In July 1978 Preisdent Siad Barre of Somalia read a speech to the delegates of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Khartoum. Barre said the Soviet Union has the same colonial ambitions as the old colonizers. The OAU was split over the question of foreign intervention in the African Continent.

Whilst Cold War alignments shifted, Arab and Somali support for Eritrean rebels maintained the Derg’s close relationship with Israel. Israeli ambassador Meir Joffe would say it is vital that the Red Sea isn’t turned “into the Arab Sea”. Siad Barre, now much more pragmatic and cynical than ever, also flirted with the idea of developing an unofficial relationship with Israel for fear of embarrassing himself, or even possibily meeting the fate of Anwar Sadat.

Having quelled a military coup in 1978, Barre would declare that the “few” rebel officers who staged the coup were captured, and that “all is well, all is normal”. All wasn’t normal however, Ethiopian sponsored rebel groups would emerge in Somalia challenging Siad Barre’s increasingly autocratic and brutal rule. External debt rose from 24% of GDP to 111% by 1980, Saudi Arabia stopped importing Somali livestock, and the disastrous campaign in 1977 provoked a refugee influx.

Barre needed friends, and after the West only promised him defensive weapons for fear he would launch another campaign against Ethiopia, reports suggest one of the countries he turned to was Israel. In February 1985, before a car accident which weakened his grip on power, Barre sent his son-in-law Abdel Rahman Abdi Hussein to Jerusalem to discuss military cooperation. The resulting agreement Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi says in his book The Israeli Connection, “covered a comprehensive program of ‘counter-insurgency’, such as training security personnel.” Barre’s old nemesis, South Africa, he notes served as an intermediary.

Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli intelligence officer recalls a meeting he had with Barre, when the president hosted him as his guest. Alpher says Barre’s appearance and demeanor reminded him of a “mafia chieftain in a Hollywood movie”, as he had detected an Italian accent on the deep and coarse voice of the president. As they chatted in the presidential palace, almost friendless, Barre asked Alpher what courses of action where open to him given his isolated geopolitical situation.

Alpher believed that the president probably expected him to be the “vehicle to Washington”, and so would consider working with Israel if needs be. After travelling around Somalia and speaking with people however, he noticed a simmering clan tension; the anger of those excluded from the ruling clique who were suffering as the Somali economy deteriorated. He doubted the viability of the state (great prediction) and to avoid angering the Ethiopians who were facilitating the migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Alpher recommended Barre reach out to Egypt instead which had also dramatically improved relations with Washington.

President Reagan Meeting with President Mohammed Siad Barre of Somalia. Oval Office on March 11, 1982. (Reagan Library)

He did improve ties with Washington in the end but it was to no avail and he was eventually driven out of power in 1991 and died in Nigeria later on.

Post-Civil War

Israel has recently scored a series of diplomatic successes with its outreach programs to Arab governments despite its increasingly belligerent and aggressive attitude to neighboring states and the Palestinians. The Saudi-UAE relationship with Israel right now is an open secret. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash even recently said the Arab decision to boycott Israel “was a very, very wrong decision, looking back”. The Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said even hosted Netanyahu who was given a grand tour.

The Israeli leader and his wife Sara Netanyahu were reportedly invited by the Sultan with whom Netanyahu last met in 1996. (Ruptly)

They’re all probably anticipating President Trump’s “deal of the century”. Vicky Ward, whose new book Kushner Inc. looks at the role of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in the White House, contains details about this “deal” to bring peace to the Middle East. According to Ward, who spoke with many people who saw the plan, Jordan will give up territory to the Palestinian Authority, which will get territory from Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia would get to keep the two islands it gave to Egypt to administer in 1950. The Saudis would be expected to build a pipeline to Gaza, and up their aid (along with the Emiratis) to the blockaded strip, where refineries and a shipping terminal might also be built. I will assume getting rid of Hamas is implied. Yes, it seems outlandish to me too. Ward also noted that the deal involved no concessions on the Israeli side.

The Palestinians don’t want to have anything to do with it of course, but other countries seem to be interested. So if the Arab’s are talking to the Israelis then why not Somalia some are asking? Countries like Somalia do need more friends than enemies, particularly influential friends.

Well these things are often not clear, so it is difficult to say with any confidence whether there are relations between Somalia and Israel, the character of those relations and how intense they are if it is the case. Reports for example emerged in June 2016, in Somali and Israeli press of a meeting between former Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Netanyahu. More recently however, in December 2017, reports also emerged that incumbent president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmaajo) snubbed Netanyahu when they were both in Kenya. Farmaajo also, as expected, condemned Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, reiterating his administrations commitment to support the Palestinian struggle for their rights. If the protests in Mogadishu which followed Trump’s decision are anything to go by as well, Farmaajo’s decision is supported by many Somalis.

But of course that doesn’t represent the full spectrum of Somali opinion on this issue. F Hussen, who describes himself as a liberal student and writer, who is based in Somaliland has written two pieces promoting the idea of a possible alignment between Israel and Somaliland in The Jerusalem Post. In his first article titled “Israel and Somaliland — Long Lost Brothers?” he outlines similarities between Israel and Somaliland, such as the obstructions both countries face to international and regional recognition of their independence. Somaliland is a self-declared autonomous republic in what is north-west Somalia.

In his second piece his goals become clearer. The writer believes a close relationship with Israel can be a motor which will propel Somaliland to recognition. “It is imperative” he writes, “that the Israeli government make Somaliland an urgent policy priority by advocating for Somaliland to gain a seat at the African Union.” Tuning into the Israeli sense of pride he says “all Israelis understand the glory of independence and the desire for peace, Israel has been there and can sympathize with Somaliland.”

The writer’s belief that a close relationship with Israel is like a magic wand to get what you want from Washington is probably what motivated this piece (an idea he probably shares with many current leaders), as Somaliland and Israel have a lot less in common than Hussen would have you believe.

Faisal Roble, editor at Wardheer News offers a more realistic assessment recognizing the fact that it might be something to consider down the line, but the stakes are simply to high now and most Somalis don’t approve. When Netanyahu visited Chad for instance it wasn’t long before Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) killed 10 Chadian peacekeepers in Mali and injured 25 others in response. This echoes Al Shabab’s statement following its deadly attack in Nairobi earlier this year, which it codenamed “Al-Qudsu Lan Tuhawwad” (“Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized”). The likelihood that this is what really motivated them is questioned by many, including distinguished scholar Roland Marchal, but it would certainly provide Al Shabab with a useful propaganda tool if Farmaajo proceeded along this course.

Even worst Netanyahu has been much less compromising recently, and to his credit his unforgiving approach seems to have worked. Netenyahu was instrumental in declaring Israel a “Jewish State” in which only Jews can enjoy self-determination, Jerusalem was Israel’s but now that fact is recognized by the world’s leading superpower and now even the Golan Heights. Why would these countries choose this moment to take a conciliatory attitude?

At present it’s clear that the Somali government has more pressing issues to tend to. In the last 10 days alone Al Shabab has carried out 7 deadly attacks. Soldiers are on strike over the non-payment of salaries and citizens of Mogadishu are increasingly concerned about the security situation in the capital.

The determining factor will likely be whether Somali leaders view a relationship with Israel as a useful segue to further develop ties with Washington. Will they go the way of MBS and MBZ and trod on the heads of Palestinians for power? Who knows. It seems to be fashion though.

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Journalist. Writer. Producer. Politics. Culture. History. East Africa. Muslims. Art. Wields a dangerous Muslamic ray gun at all times | Istanbul | @fromadic92

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