Somali leader who met Netanyahu returns to power, and some see hope of normalization

The Times of Israel
By Lazar Berman

Somalia’s parliament selected a new president last week, bringing back a leader who met secretly with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2016. Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud was elected Sunday in an indirect vote that ran over a year late, the process mired in political infighting that turned violent at times and sowed division in the fragile central government.

A Somali diplomat close to Mohamoud told The Times of Israel that his return to power was a positive development for a potential normalization process between Mogadishu and Jerusalem.

“The group that is against normalization with Israel is out,” the diplomat said. “Former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who met Bibi, has been elected again. The hope of the Somali people with this new president is very good.”

Israel does not have diplomatic relations with the East African nation, which has a population of some 11 million. Somalia, a mostly Sunni Muslim country and a member of the Arab League, has never recognized the State of Israel.

In June 2016, a news website operated by journalists opposed to the Somali regime reported that Mohamud and three other Somali officials came to Tel Aviv on a short visit and met there with Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. At the time, a senior official close to Mohamud confirmed to The Times of Israel that the meeting took place, and that another meeting between the two leaders was in the works.

The source said there was also a lower-level official meeting in Jerusalem in December 2015, involving representatives from the Economy Ministry and officials from Somalia.

Netanyahu neither confirmed nor denied the meeting, saying only that “we have a lot of contacts with countries that we don’t have formal relations with.”

There have been other signs of a desire to normalize ties with Israel over the years.

In March 2019, Somalia abstained on a UN Human Rights Council vote condemning Israel over the occupation of the Golan Heights. It was believed to have been the first time a member state of the Arab League gave up an opportunity to condemn the Jewish state in a major international forum. Though Mogadishu on the same day voted in favor of three other anti-Israel resolutions, and later reiterated its rejection of Israeli claims over the strategic plateau, the abstention indicated a debate in the East African country over potential ties with the Jewish state.

Somalia’s envoy to the UN was summoned home after the vote, and a high-ranking government official told reporters that he was “surprised” by the abstention on the Golan vote, saying it was “at odds with the official government position.”

Shortly after that vote, a senior Somali diplomat publicly expressed support for normalizing ties with Israel.

“It is long overdue. Establishing diplomatic relations does not harm anyone but promote peace and cooperation,” Abdullahi Dool tweeted.

“The Palestinians are their worst enemies,” he wrote in a second tweet. “They never miss an opportunity to miss a chance. They are idiots and losers in Gaza. They should be condemned each time they attack civilians. It is in our interest to welcome Israel.”

Two days later, Somali Foreign Minister Ahmed Isse Awad fired Dool, who had entered the Somali foreign service in 1983.

On the same day, Abdinur Mohamed, a spokesman for then-president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, took to Twitter to declare that as long as Israel holds on to “Muslim lands” and Jerusalem and continues to deny Palestinians their rights, Somalia will never have diplomatic relations with Israel. Anyone who says otherwise, the tweet continued, cannot work for the Somali government.

In 2020, Israel signed normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco as part of the Abraham Accords process.

But not all observers anticipate any impending moves toward normalization between Mogadishu and Jerusalem with Mohamud’s return.

“[Mohamud] represents the more Islamist stream,” said Irit Back, head of the Africa Research Program at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center. “His orientation is less in the direction of normalization, but these things happen by surprise.

“For now, I don’t think there are any signs of radical change in the country’s stance,” she added. “Plus, they have more serious problems to deal with, so I don’t think this is a priority for them.”

The Somalia-based Al-Shabaab terrorist group has been trying to overthrow the central government in Mogadishu for more than a decade, and has staged deadly attacks in neighboring nations Kenya and Uganda. It controls large swaths of countryside.

Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with over 70 percent of its population living on less than $1.90 a day. Meanwhile a severe drought threatens to drive millions into famine, with UN agencies having warned of a humanitarian catastrophe unless early action is taken.

Mohamud — who served as president between 2012 and 2017 and is the first Somali leader to win a second term — has promised to transform the troubled Horn of Africa nation into “a peaceful country that is at peace with the world.”

If that promise includes Israel, a tangible sign of a desire for diplomatic ties could come next year, when African nations are expected to take up a debate over Israel’s accreditation as an observer state to the African Union. Debate on the issue was suspended during February’s annual summit, and the committee studying the issue will present its findings at the 2023 gathering.