Photo: President Goodluck Jonathan
• Recent Israeli assistance on Boko Haram influenced FG’s decision
• Netanyahu hails Jonathan, Kagame, Palestine shocked
By Damilola Oyedele in Abuja with agency report
In a pivotal foreign policy shift, Nigeria on Tuesday night abstained from voting on a crucial United Nations Security Council resolution that would have ended Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip by 2017.
Nigeria’s position marked a departure from the past when the country always voted in favour of Palestine and had always thrown its weight behind a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nigeria had maintained that policy in what analysts believed was influenced by the religious undertones, with many Nigerian Muslims supporting Palestine, while there was also the Christianity affiliation between Nigeria and Israel.
However, foreign policy analysts who spoke to THISDAY on the issue on Wednesday said Nigeria’s change in policy may not be unconnected to the recent tangible assistance given by Israel in the war against Boko Haram in the North-east.
Israel, as opposed to the United States, Britain and other traditional Western allies, which have been engaged in semantics, has given Nigeria concrete assistance in the form of drones, arms, military advisers and training that has helped Nigerian troops in the push back against the insurgents in recent weeks.
The UN resolution had called for new talks based on territorial lines that existed before Israel’s occupation of the territories in 1967, and was the culmination of three months of campaigning by the Palestinians at the UN and had the backing of Arab states.
The Palestinians required nine votes from 15 permanent and non-permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Nigeria is currently one of the 10 non-permanent members, with its tenure expiring in 2015. Chad and Rwanda are the other African members.
However, Palestine got eight votes, one vote short during the vote which took place on Tuesday night.
The United States and Australia voted against the resolution, while Russia, China, France, Luxembourg, Jordan, Argentina, Chile and Chad voted for the resolution.
Nigeria, Britain, South Korea, Rwanda and Lithuania abstained.
Nigeria’s role stood out because until shortly before the vote, diplomats had expected the resolution to get nine “yes” votes, with Nigeria believed to be in support.
But at the last minute, Nigeria’s UN envoy, Prof. Joy Ogwu, abstained from voting, echoing the position of the US that the ultimate path to peace between Israel and Palestine lies “in a negotiated solution”.
Regardless of whether Palestine received nine votes, the resolution still stood no chance, as US would have deployed its veto powers as a permanent member to block it.
But analysts believe the US sought to avoid that scenario, as it would have angered Arab allies who are currently supporting a US-led international coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.
To save the US from that awkward position, its Secretary of State, John Kerry, reached out to Nigeria to help block the move, the Times of Israel reported.
After the vote, US envoy, Samantha Power, said: “We voted against this resolution not because we are comfortable with the status quo. We voted against it because… peace must come from hard compromises that occur at the negotiating table.”
Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, also said he personally spoke to Jonathan and received his assurance of support.
“I would like to voice appreciation and thanks to the United States and Australia, and also special appreciation for the president of Rwanda, my friend Paul Kagame, and the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan.
“I spoke with both of them. They told me and promised me, personally, that they would not support this resolution. They kept their word, and that’s what clinched this matter. I think this is very important for the state of Israel,” the PM said.
However, Palestinian officials who had lobbied Nigeria for months to back the vote and had received assurances from its officials, expressed shock at the change of heart.
Speaking to THISDAY on Wednesday, the Ambassador of the State of Palestine to Nigeria, Dr. Montaser Abu-Zeid, expressed surprise at Nigeria’s action.
He disclosed that he had received the assurances of Nigeria's foreign ministry officials and had transmitted same to the Palestinian president and foreign minister.
“It was a surprise because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed me that they would vote for us, and I have informed my president and foreign minister. Even yesterday (Tuesday), they assured me they would vote for an end to the occupation.
“It is a shock for us, why they abstained, only Nigerian officials know, and you would have to ask them. We needed nine votes and eight countries including China, Russia and France voted for us.
“It is a sad day for us. Nigeria had recognised the state of Palestine since 1988 when it was even difficult times. They voted for the two-state solution, they voted for us on all issues on Israel and Palestine.
“Nigeria has been big brother to us, but at this crucial time, to vote to end the occupation, they abstain,” the envoy lamented.
Abu-Zeid however noted that Palestine still looks forward to more cooperation between both countries.
THISDAY’s attempts to get the official position on why Nigeria changed her foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestine conflict proved unsuccessful, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Aminu Wali did not pick calls to his phone, neither did he respond to a text message on the issue.
However, a source in the foreign affairs ministry said Nigeria’s decision to abstain was “strategic at critical juncture for us, as we have been battling the insurgency for six years”.
He added, “The Israelis have offered us concrete assistance and we cannot turn our backs on them. However, we will continue to support Palestine as a long-standing ally and strengthen relations with both countries,” he said.
The Israeli newspaper Ynet on Wednesday also alluded to Nigeria’s pivotal role in blocking the vote that would have ended Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
It said Nigeria was the ninth country that was supposed to give the Palestinians the necessary majority in the UN Security Council.
“In the end, it became the nation that swayed from Palestinian support to abstention and by doing so enabled the prevention of the unilateral Palestinian resolution to pass.”
Ynet further revealed that high-ranking officials within Israel’s foreign ministry had already come to terms with the fact that Nigeria would give Palestinian the ninth vote majority and that the US would then use its veto. But the events played out surprisingly different.
“We discovered that the Nigerians did not submit and did not break down and voted according to their conscience,” explained a high-ranking source at the foreign ministry.
What finally tipped the balance was a phone call made by Netanyahu to the President of Nigeria, he claimed.
Part of the change stemmed from the tightening relationship between Israel and Nigeria and from the common interests of the countries in the fight against global terrorism.
Israel was one of the first nations in the world to offer the Nigerians help in the struggle against the Boko Haram terrorist group.
According to various reports, Israel also sold the Nigerians weaponry to be used in the struggle, while the US had enacted an arms embargo against Nigeria.
Israel not only cooperates with Nigeria in the war on terror, but also in the areas of agriculture, construction, communication, intelligence and more. More than 50 Israeli companies operate in Nigeria in the civil engineering, energy, communication, and security industries among others.
Other than Nigeria, Rwanda was also a key African country that helped the Israeli effort to prevent the Palestinian resolution from passing in the UN – although their vote came as no surprise.
Israel has very good relations with Rwanda, especially between Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Rwanda's foreign minister and between Netanyahu and the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame.
Israel and Rwanda have several business relations and the foreign ministry invests in aid to Rwanda in several different categories. Another country that proved itself a loyal ally to Israel was Lithuania – which also abstained from voting.
Officials from Israel’s foreign ministry said: “We marked Africa as a target continent for our diplomatic efforts, but we have to say that there are regional and global circumstances that change the principles by which the diplomats function. One of the most important things today (Tuesday) is the struggle against radicalism and terror.”
Photo: President Goodluck Jonathan