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Op-eds

Togo becomes a no-go: Africa-Israel Summit cancelled

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From October 23 to 27, up to 30 African heads of state were slated to attend the first Africa-Israel Summit in Lomé, Togo, but Israel abruptly announced its postponement on September 11. While key states like Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda supported the Summit, South Africa, Morocco, the Palestinians and most Arab states openly opposed it, in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Israel has reaffirmed its continued interest in engaging Africa despite this cancellation. Why was the Summit called off, and what lessons emerge?
by STEVEN GRUZD AND CARMEL RAWHANI | Sep 28, 2017

The Summit was to be the crown jewel in Israel’s stepped-up engagement with the continent, on the economic and political fronts, and not least to break the African bloc’s automatic anti-Israel votes in international fora. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited both East and West Africa during the last 18 months, and hosted leaders from Ethiopia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Zambia in Jerusalem, plus senior delegations from Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Rwanda.

While the public statement issued through the Summit’s webpage announced the postponement, with no new date proposed it reads more like a cancellation. The statement indicated that the Togolese president requested more time for the “elaborate preparations” needed to secure the success of the event. Palestinian solidarity organisation BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) South Africa was quick to crow that the boycott had worked.

But is that really why the summit is on ice? It’s difficult to know exactly who was planning to snub the summit - no list has been published on which states had decided to go or not to go to Togo. Many states were apparently annoyed at Israel having bypassed the African Union to issue bilateral invitations to each country.

Although the calls to boycott the Summit may indeed have had some effect, domestic factors in Togo seem the more likely explanation. From late August, citizens massed in the streets, largely in opposition to the constitution which allows President Faure Gnassingbé to run for unlimited terms. It would have been impossible to host heads of state in this tense atmosphere.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told Al Jazeera: “The decision was linked to the internal situation in Togo. The situation is seen to be unstable, and they asked to postpone… It has nothing to do with pressure or threats of boycott.”

Engaging with African countries bilaterally by Israel will be more difficult than at a summit, with multiple receptive leaders in one conference room.

Israel should learn that Africa can quickly become unpredictable and unstable, especially with autocratic leaders. Neither can Africa be approached as an ideologically united bloc, even if its members often vote in similar patterns.

For Israel’s determination to woo the continent to succeed, this effort must be grounded in a foreign policy that strikes a balance between being reactive and predictive, and appreciates the nuances influencing each African state’s choices and motives. 

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