DRC: Tshisekedi places risky bet on rekindling relations with Israel

By Romain Gras

Posted on Monday, 9 March 2020 14:28
Congo's President Felix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi sits before addressing the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S.Congo's President Felix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi
Congo's President Felix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

During his visit to the United States, Félix Tshisekedi announced that the Democratic Republic of Congo would restore diplomatic relations with Israel and pledged to support Donald Trump’s controversial peace plan.

In so doing, he runs the risk of setting off a firestorm, particularly among some of his Front commun pour le Congo (FCC) allies.

Two weeks after J. Peter Pham, U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region, paid a visit to Kinshasa (from 10 to 13 February), Félix Tshisekedi returned the favour by making an official visit to the United States this week, his fourth such visit since taking office in January 2019.

READ MORE: DRC: Félix Tshisekedi pushes back against Joseph Kabila

Invited on 1 March to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel US lobby, the Congolese president alluded to restoring diplomatic ties with Israel and his remarks have since sparked off debate in Kinshasa.

“Cavalier and unilateral”

Expressing his wish to “build strong ties” with Israel, Tshisekedi made a series of declarations before an enthusiastic audience.

After many years of “inadequate representation” at Kinshasa’s embassy in Tel Aviv – at the time of this writing, Kinshasa’s presence is limited to a chargé d’affaires – the Congolese president announced that he intended to appoint a new ambassador “in the coming days.”

Tshisekedi indicated that an economic division run by “high-level staff” will be opened in Jerusalem, despite the city’s highly controversial status. He asserted that he did not see any “drawback” to the location, as the country’s representation is currently based in Tel Aviv.

As he concluded his speech, he even extended support for Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, a roadmap presented in late January by the US president but which was rejected by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and a portion of the international community, with the PNA leading the pack.

Reactions from the camp of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, poured in quickly. “The DRC can’t ignore Palestine, it’s a simple question of logic and consistency,” Jean-Pierre Kambila, a close ally of the former president, wrote on Twitter.

Barnabé Kikaya Bin Karubi, who served as diplomatic advisor to Kabila during his presidency, criticised the “cavalier and unilateral way” in which President Tshisekedi, he felt, took the decision. And this is at a time when “the DRC is being led by a cohabitation government.” Lastly, a diplomat commented: “We are all bound by this decision.”

“It’s his stance”

Tshisekedi’s stance on such a hot button issue comes as a surprise given that just a few weeks ago the African Union (AU), of which the Congolese president currently serves as vice chair and will become its leader in 2021, denounced Trump’s peace plan.

During the most recent summit in Addis Ababa on 9 and 10 February, the AU concluded that the plan “represented the umpteenth violation of multiple United Nations and African Union resolutions.” The AU’s new incoming chair, Cyril Ramaphosa, went as far as to compare the US’s proposals to regulations in place during South Africa’s apartheid period from 1948 to 1991.

How is Tshisekedi’s diplomatic volte-face to be understood in light of the AU’s position? Did he seek to provide Washington with assurance? The controversy has been swept under the rug within the president’s inner circle. According to a message sent by one of his advisors: “the decision represents the president’s stance.”

READ MORE: DRC: One year in and Félix Tshisekedi is yet to make his mark

“It looks like a risky bet because Congolese public opinion is clearly receptive to the Palestinian cause. But there’s little chance that it’ll put him in an awkward position with his peers,” a diplomatic source revealed.

Promise of a break with Kabila

Since Tshisekedi took office, Washington has continuously called on the regime to take tangible steps to break with Kabila’s camp – in particular with figures under US Treasury sanctions – and make headway in terms of anti-corruption measures.

Relations between the DRC and Israel have often been shaky, with major disruptions starting in 1973 as the Yom Kippur War unfolded.

In an address before the UN General Assembly, General Mobutu Sese Seko delivered a famous speech in which he announced a break with relations between Zaire and Israel. “Zaire has therefore to choose between a friendly country, Israel, and a brother nation, Egypt. But between a friend and a brother the choice is clear,” he declared in the preamble of his speech (see video below at 28:30), after which diplomatic relations were not restored until the beginning of the 1980s.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options