How Mauritian foreign policy about the conflict has been shaped

22 octobre 2023, 22:00


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How Mauritian foreign policy about the conflict has been shaped

Since the 1970s Mauritius has consistently backed Palestine at the UN in line with African opinion.

With the eruption of renewed fighting between Israel and Palestine, world attention is focused on what looks to be a worsening situation. Here is how Mauritian foreign policy towards the conflict has been crafted over the decades.

The war today

As conflict has flared up again between Israel and Palestine, the Mauritian government released a statement on October 8, outlining its own position. After stating that it was “deeply concerned over the unprecedented attacks perpetrated in Israel on Saturday October 07 2023, claiming the lives of hundreds of persons and causing injury to numerous civilians on both sides”, the statement went on to reaffirm the Mauritian government’s “longstanding support to the two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine existing side and side, for an enduring peace”. It also demanded that the international community find a “just and lasting solution to this conflict”. This is a reiteration of Mauritius’ decades-long stance on the conflict in the Middle East.

So how did Mauritius craft its position on the Israel-Palestine conflict? Israel found itself diplomatically isolated in Africa after the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt. A combination of promises of aid from the richer Arab states, Israel’s growing ties with Apartheid South Africa – a few months after the war Tel Aviv opened an embassy there and trade between the two doubled between 1973 and 1974 – and Israel being seen as occupying Egyptian land meant that Israel had gone from having diplomatic relations with 33 African states to just four: Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mauritius.

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Mauritius’ first Prime Minister was keen on newly independent Mauritius growing its diplomatic clout internationally and improving its fragile economy. Ties with Africa were seen as important in getting Mauritius positions in multilateral organizations such as the WHO, a UNSC seat in 1977-78, and Ramgoolam’s ambitions to host an Indian Ocean Conference and position Mauritius as a leading voice in the region. At the same time, cultivating ties with Arab states was seen as a potential source of economic aid. The resulting balancing act led Mauritius to conclude that so long as Israel did not open an embassy in Mauritius, it could ignore calls to cut ties with Tel Aviv, and Israel could emerge as a potential market for Mauritian tea as a way to deal with South African threats to cut off its tea imports in reaction to Mauritian positions at the UN against it.

This balancing act lasted until 1976 when Ramgoolam took over as chair of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – viewed as the apogee of what came to be termed in its foreign policy establishment as its ‘African Vocation’. A year earlier in 1975 the OAU session in Uganda had termed Zionism to be a form of racism. With Ramgoolam looking to take over the chair of the organization, it would look bad with Mauritius being one of the few African states still maintaining ties with Tel Aviv.

Just ahead of the summit in Mauritius, Port Louis announced that it was freezing diplomatic ties with Israel. The summit itself was overshadowed by three events: killings in Soweto in South Africa, a coup attempt in Sudan, and the Entebbe raid by Israeli commandoes in Uganda to free hostages taken during the hijacking of an Air France plane. In response, Mauritius stepped up its war of words against Tel Aviv, sending then-foreign minister Harold Walter (then Chairman of the OAU’s Council of Ministers) to help Uganda present its case at the UN Security Council accusing Israel of violating Uganda’s sovereignty. Speaking to the press about the raid, Walter said, “You can admire the quality of the villainy, but you cannot forgive the villainy itself”.

palestine 2.JPG (Mauritius moved away from Israel diplomatically and froze ties for the first time in 1976 as it hosted the OAU summit and looked to deepen its ties with Africa and the Arab world instead.)

Enter the Palestinians

Snubbing Tel Aviv to deepen ties with Arab and African states did not mean embracing the Palestinians formally. In fact, Mauritius had now begun a new balancing act, criticising Israel but only up to a certain point. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) wanted to set up formal relations and set up an office in Mauritius in 1979, Port Louis reacted by stonewalling the requests. At the same time, Port Louis instructed its diplomats not to criticise or join in Arab and African condemnations of the Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel in 1979. The diplomats at the UN were told not to vote for any resolution that might be perceived as critical of Israel or Egypt in the context of that deal. In October that year, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam supported the deal at the UN.

When the PLO wanted observer status at the IMF and World Bank, Mauritian diplomats abstained from voting. There was a reason for Mauritian reluctance; firstly, it distrusted the more radical regimes in Africa and the Arab world, preferring its traditional pro-Western orientation; secondly, since the mid-1970s, Mauritius was suffering an economic crisis: when sugar prices were high between 1970 and 1974, the Mauritian government increased wages and started new social programmes to boost its political fortunes.

When prices collapsed, the government was obliged to turn to foreign aid (such as the US PL-480 programme which gave out surplus US food in the form of aid. By 1980, Mauritius was getting $700,000 in the form of grants under the programme), loans from the IMF and cheap oil from then-staunch US ally Iran to keep its economy from collapse. Even though it had frozen ties with Tel Aviv in 1976, Mauritius’ economic woes meant that it could not realistically take up more radical positions on the issue internationally.

It was not until a change of government in 1982, bringing to power an MMM-PSM coalition, that Mauritius formally established ties with organizations such as the PLO, ANC, SWAPO and the Polisario Front. This change in Mauritian foreign policy also meant that it was now taking up more forceful stands at international bodies regarding the Israel-Palestine issue. During the 1980s, Mauritius’ diplomatic record at the UN began to follow that of the African bloc; Port Louis consistently began backing African positions on UN resolutions concerning Israel and its alleged nuclear arsenal, disarmament and human rights violations by South Africa, Israel and Chile.

palestine 3.JPG (Ties with Israel were restored only in 1993 following the start of the short-lived Oslo peace process that collapsed after the 1995 assassination of former Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli.)

Oslo and the resumption of ties

Mauritius did not formally restore ties with Israel until 1993, with the Oslo accords. With peace talks starting between Israel and Palestinian groups, African states began restoring ties with Tel Aviv, including Mauritius. The resumption of ties was announced via the Mauritian embassy in New York – the same embassy that announced their freeze back in 1976. However, following the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the diminished appetite for peace talks within the Israeli political spectrum, there was little hope of deepening ties between Tel Aviv and Port Louis. Still less, space for Mauritius to review its voting behaviour at the UN on the Israel-Palestine issue given that African states had not done so.

Mauritius has pretty much continued to follow Africa’s lead on the issue. When in 2009, the vast majority of African states backed the Goldstone report commissioned by the UN to look into Israel’s bombardment of Gaza that killed 1,400 Palestinians, Mauritius backed the report and briefly froze ties with Israel again. In November 2012, Mauritius followed most African states in backing the admission of Palestine into the UN as a ‘non-member observer state’. Since 2015, Mauritius has voted in favour of Palestine on 137 UN resolutions along with most of Africa and just last year backed a bid to get the UN’s International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

The statement by the Mauritian government this time round should not come as much of a surprise either; nor is there much scope for Port Louis to review its policy. If anything, the diplomatic space for Mauritius to manoeuvre is continually shrinking as Africa takes a harder view of Israeli actions in Gaza. On October 15, the African Union’s Commission and the General Secretariat of the League of Arab States came up with a joint statement warning against an Israeli invasion of the Gaza strip containing 2.2 million Palestinians: “An Israeli invasion would undoubtedly entail a huge number of civilian casualties, including women and children, which could lead to a genocide of unprecedented proportions”.

Nor is that space going to increase with reported ‘splits’ amongst African countries. This has been speculated on following statements from individual African states such as Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and the DRC that initially came out with statements aligned with the West and sympathetic to Israel. This is nothing new, nor unprecedented. Historically, West Africa has been friendlier to Tel Aviv than other African regional blocs. Even when virtually all African states began cutting ties with Tel Aviv in the 1970s, some such as Kenya, Ghana and the Ivory Coast did not cut ties completely, continuing to host Israeli interest sections in other embassies.

And despite not having formal ties in the 1970s, trade links between Israel and West African states only grew; by 1978 IsraeliAfrican trade grew to $100 million mostly in West Africa (excluding, of course, South Africa) and Israeli construction firms were bagging contracts worth $400 million in the Ivory Coast alone and more in Nigeria. It is with this history in mind that in 2017 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu picked an ECOWAS summit in Liberia to announce that “Israel is coming back to Africa” and see West Africa as a launchpad for Israel resurrecting its African relationships that had suffered as from the 1970s.

But Mauritius cannot look to examples of individual African states to revise its own foreign policy on the Middle East. Firstly, while such statements came in the early days of the current round of fighting, as the conflict goes on and the casualties start mounting, it remains to be seen whether these states will maintain the same stand. Secondly, Mauritius has little to gain by bucking the trend, particularly when it has relied on African support for its own claim on the Chagos Islands. Thirdly, the states of West Africa are focused internally at the moment with ECOWAS going through its own crisis over events in Niger. While individual states can make statements, there is little appetite for a diplomatic clash with the rest of Africa over Israel-Palestine. And fourthly, the traditionally friendlier view of Tel Aviv in some West African states has not changed the position of the AU as a whole where just in February this year, Israeli diplomats were ejected from an AU summit in Addis Ababa over whether or not they had observer status. Shortly afterwards, South Africa downgraded the Israeli embassy into a liaison office.

Mauritius’ insistence on a two-state solution as the ultimate way out of the current crisis has been decades in the making. And with the conflict only getting worse, it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.