The Israelis view their renewed ties with the Ivory Coast to be their ticket back through the front door of black Africa. Years of quiet diplomatic effort led up to the surprise announcement Wednesday that Israel and the Ivory Coast will restore diplomatic ties. If the Ivory Coast's move persuades other African states to follow suit, such a development would both ease Israel's constant fear of political isolation in the international arena and pave the way for greater trade and cultural ties with at least some of its neighbors.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of such ties to a nation that, 37 years after its founding, still feels like the odd man out in the world community.
``I personally believe that it would add to Israel's standing in the world [to be welcomed back to black Africa],'' Foreign Ministry Director General David Kimche said in an interview last summer. ``Israel must not appear as being blocked out of the third world. It is terribly important for Israel to be identified with the developing world and to contribute. It is very important for us to counteract the efforts by the Arab world, helped by the Soviet Union, to isolate us. It is important that we not be a nother South Africa or Taiwan.''
Most black African states broke diplomatic relations with Israel during and after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in a show of solidarity with Egypt.
During the '50s and '60s, Israel had developed extensive ties with the emerging African states, and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir acknowledged in her 1975 biography that the diplomatic relations, trade, and technological and cultural ties served to mitigate Israel's isolation in the world community.
The Israelis sent technicians, doctors, agricultural experts, and businessmen -- as well as arms -- to the nations of black Africa. The Africans sent students to Israeli universities and agricultural schools. Many Israeli businessmen have maintained their ties with black Africa, but in 1973, almost all the members of the Organization of African Unity broke formal ties with Israel.
``No one regrets more bitterly than I that, for the time being, the African nations -- or many of them -- have chosen to turn their backs on us,'' Mrs. Meir wrote.
In recent years, Israel has been sharply criticized by black African states for its close ties with South Africa. Although the Israelis condemn South Africa's apartheid system, there is a large Jewish community in South Africa, and the two countries enjoy extensive trade and cultural relations.
Israeli diplomats have worked behind the scenes with the black African countries, in an effort driven by Mr. Kimche to convince them that it was in their interest to restore ties with Israel.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres's trip to Geneva Wednesday, where he met Ivory Coast President F'elix Houphouet-Boigny, was shrouded in secrecy until shortly before the press conference announcing the decision to reestablish ties. Mr. Peres said on his return to Israel that he expects the Ivory Coast's decision to influence four other African states to restore ties with Israel. Sources here speculate that Togo, Cameroon, and Ghana may be among those to follow the Ivory Coast's lead.
In May 1982, Zaire reestablished ties with Israel, followed by Liberia in 1983. Israel also maintains full relations with Lesotho, Malawi, and Swaziland. And Israel maintains ``interest sections'' in eight other African nations through other states' embassies.
The Foreign Ministry's Mr. Kimche blamed the reluctance of black African states to restore ties on their fear of Arab political and economic retaliation.
``But there is a growing disillusionment with the Arab countries among black Africans,'' he said. ``The African countries . . . don't like to be blackmailed and dicatated to. They value very much the aid or technological capabilities they can get from Israel.''
Kimche also said in August that he did not believe Israel's links to South Africa were the real reason for black African nations' refusal to restore ties with Israel.
He pointed out that other nations like Sweden and some Arab countries have trading relations with South Africa, and said that this was ``being used as an excuse.''