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Op-eds

The Israel-Africa tectonic plates are shifting quickly

  • Paul Hirschson and Senegal's President Macky Sall
Tectonic plates continue to shift, including the East Africa Rift of which the Jordan Rift Valley is a part. At current rates, less than one centimetre per year, it will take thousands of years but eventually Israel will have separated from the Arabian Peninsula as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria move north while Israel, together with Africa, moves south. Israel will be a part of Africa and a member of the African Union.
by PAUL HIRSCHSON | Jul 27, 2017

Some 4 000 years ago the Jews had their first engagement with Africa, as slaves in Egypt. Today Israel and Egypt are strategic partners, both in security and economically.

Over 300 000 Egyptians work in joint ventures between Israeli and Egyptian businesspeople, supporting some four million Egyptians and many thousands of Israelis.

Our second engagement with Africa began about 2 500 years ago as one part of the Jewish people escaped the Babylonian conquest of our state and took refuge in Ethiopia where we lived until modern times.

A number of Jews still live in Ethiopia although most have returned to Israel since its re-establishment as a modern nation-state.

The third major engagement between the Jews and Africa started a little more than 500 years ago. Having lived in Europe for centuries, Jews again found themselves under dire threat and sought a new exile from that exile.

On every ship leaving Europe, as the European colonial era began, there were Jews seeking to leave Europe. Many found their way to Africa, starting in Cape Verde and progressing down the coast of West Africa and beyond.

Now is the fourth major engagement of the Jews with Africa, in the form of flourishing ties between the modern State of Israel and countries across Africa.

Israel’s relationships in Africa have seen ups and downs. An initial romance, as Israel invested heavily in development aid and commercial relations. Israelis went in large numbers to African countries as they secured independence and were very active in training, significantly in the agriculture sector, and in many large-scale construction projects.

The first sign of change appeared following the 1967 Six Day War when Guinea broke relations with Israel. No other country did so, but with hindsight we can see that early sign.

Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, at the request of Egypt the Organisation of African Unity (predecessor to the African Union), at a meeting in Gambia, called on African countries to break relations with Israel. Almost all did.

A few short years later, Egypt began peace negotiations with Israel, culminating in the Israel-Egypt peace accords, leaving African countries happy for the peace accords and stunned at being sidelined as Israel had already turned its attention elsewhere.

Most African countries quickly re-established relations with Israel but as events would have it, with Israel having established embassies elsewhere and limited budgets, Israel hasn’t reopened the same number of embassies in Africa (there had been 30; today there are 11).

In July 2016, Guinea and Israel re-established diplomatic relations, highlighting the positive direction Israel’s relations across Africa is headed. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there remain barely a handful of countries yet to re-establish relations with Israel.

Days before Israel and Guinea re-established relations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister in many years to visit Africa. He visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Pictures from a meeting between Netanyahu with the presidents of those four countries, as well as the presidents of Tanzania and South Sudan and Zambia’s foreign minister, made headlines across the globe.

Analysts and commentators across Africa and throughout the world, understood and announced: Israel is a significant player in Africa and Africa is important to Israel.

In June 2017 Israel again stunned the diplomatic world with Prime Minister Netanyahu becoming the only non-African head of state ever invited to address an ECOWAS summit, the 15-state association of West African countries.

In addition to being the keynote speaker, Prime Minister Netanyahu held bilateral meetings with the presidents of 10 of the 15 member states (three others didn’t attend the summit, two of whom were receiving medical treatment in Europe at the time; time constraints prevented meeting the final two, one of which Netanyahu met its prime minister in Jerusalem days beforehand).

South Africa remains Israel’s number one business partner in Africa, although Egypt is fast challenging South Africa’s dominance. Today, beyond those two countries, thousands of Israeli businesspeople and their families have moved to Africa to further nurture investments, joint ventures and other business relationships.

Most are found in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana, with hundreds of families in each. There are growing numbers of Israelis in Rwanda, Uganda, Sierra Leone and many other countries.

In Senegal one farm alone has deployed 25 000 kilometres of Israeli drip irrigation infrastructure (yes, you read that correct: 25 million metres; 100 million hi-tech drippers, every 25 centimetres).

Water infrastructure projects are fast competing with agricultural projects as Israel’s main economic activity in Africa. An Israel company recently signed a memorandum of understanding with ECOWAS to invest $1 billion in solar energy technology across West Africa.

In modern times, the political tectonic plates are moving rapidly and Israel’s partnerships across Africa are flourishing. There remains much work to be done. 

Paul Hirschson is Israel’s ambassador to six West African countries including Senegal where the embassy is located. You can follow him on Twitter: @paulhirschson

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