YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres arrived here Monday on a precedent-setting state visit that points up his country's most successful year in two decades of trying to counter the diplomatic boycott that followed the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.
Peres, the first Israeli prime minister to set foot in black Africa since 1966, came to renew diplomatic relations with Cameroon, which were broken 13 years ago. The formal announcement is to come in a joint communique to be signed today with Cameroon President Paul Biya.
The prime minister was given an extraordinary welcome, with thousands of Cameroonians lining the 10-mile route from the airport to a presidential guest house on a wooded hilltop overlooking Yaounde, the capital.
"It's like when the Pope came," a policeman said as he watched the crowd surge around Peres at the airport. The policeman was referring to the visit in August, 1985, of Pope John Paul II.
Natives Crowd Tarmac
A score of native dance troupes crowded the tarmac, brightening an overcast day with their multicolored robes. Many of the garments bore likenesses of Biya and words of praise for his party, the Cameroon National Union.
The daily Cameroon Tribune carried a front-page headline in Hebrew that said "Mr. Peres, Welcome to Cameroon." But the script was printed upside-down.
Despite a tiring, all-night flight from Israel, Peres clearly relished the enthusiastic greeting. He sees the trip as a milestone in Israel's effort to improve its international standing, particularly its relations with the Third World.
"There has been a wall of hostility built around Israel, and we're looking for the cracks in the wall in order to destroy it," said David Kimche, the Foreign Ministry's director general, who is accompanying Peres on the trip. "We don't want to have the image of a country just dependent on the United States or Western Europe."
Joins Spain, Ivory Coast
Cameroon will be the third country this year to initiate or restore diplomatic relations with Israel--the most in such a short period since before the war of 1967. Spain signed an official declaration establishing ties with Israel last January, and the Ivory Coast renewed its ties in February.
Cameroon becomes the 73rd country with which Israel has full diplomatic relations, still down from a peak of 98 nations but the highest level in a generation. The Soviet Union and its allies except for Romania cut ties in 1967, and 27 black African countries, including Cameroon, did so after the war of 1973.
There have been other diplomatic breakthroughs. It has been announced that Poland and Israel are soon to open interest sections--a step below full diplomatic relations but the first serious crack in the East Bloc's diplomatic boycott.
Whatever else may follow from last week's Soviet-Israeli meeting in Helsinki--the first such contact in 19 years--it is recognized as a milestone. And the same is true for Peres' meeting in Morocco last month with King Hassan II. Early next month it is expected that a meeting between Peres and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak will signal a new era in relations frozen since 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon.
"I attach great importance to the removal of the siege around Israel, the decrease of the boycott," Peres said in an Israeli television interview last week.
Efforts at Isolation
The Arab countries have made a concerted effort to isolate Israel within the international community in hopes of putting diplomatic pressure on it to return lands it has occupied since capturing them from Arab nations in 1967.
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane on the flight to Yaounde, Peres credited a changed Israeli approach in the past two years with improving the country's international standing.
"I think," he said, "Israel unwisely consented to become the victim of false accusations--that other people are interested in peace and she is the refusing country, where in fact it's the other way around."
He said Israel's willingness over the past two years to seek a Middle East compromise has convinced "really many countries . . . that we are serious, that we are sincere in our peace intentions."
But although there has been a clear change of tone since Peres became prime minister of Israel's national unity government nearly two years ago, that is not the only reason for the recent diplomatic successes, most analysts believe.
Oil Price Connection
Perhaps most important, Kimche said, is that "falling oil prices have changed the whole situation dramatically. . . . The oil situation has knocked the bottom out of the need to be deferential to the Arab world."
Israel has long been anxious to reestablish what have been extremely good ties with black Africa, an additional factor working in its favor there.