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Israel-Africa rollercoaster accelerates in Paris

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On 31 May 2022, Paris hosted a high-level meeting highlighting and promoting Israel’s growing relations with African countries. Israel has much to offer the African continent, in the agricultural, innovation, and security sectors. Africa can offer Israel trading opportunities and diplomatic support. This meeting underscored progress and potential. The event was even attended by ministers or former ministers from countries that don’t formally recognise Israel such as Mali and the autonomous region of Somaliland. There are no indications that it was attended by the South African government, which is notoriously wary of both the French and Israelis.

Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, said via video link, “We will co-operate to deliver food security for millions. We will co-ordinate in the fight against terrorism to ensure peace and stability. We will collaborate in high-tech to create opportunities for millions of Israelis and Africans alike. We will cultivate deeper diplomatic ties to cement our historic and deeply-rooted partnership.”

The event, titled “Israel back in Africa? Challenges and opportunities,” was organised by the Israeli embassy in France and the Paris office of the American Jewish Committee. Attendees included African and French diplomats, journalists, and businesspersons. Paris was chosen as a venue as it’s a centre for Africa watchers and media interested in Africa.

Israel’s relations with Africa have been like a rollercoaster. Strong ties were apparent in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, Israel had more than 30 embassies on the continent. Then came the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and under pressure from the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), African states broke off diplomatic relations en masse. Only four kept their formal ties with Israel: Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, and Swaziland (now eSwatini). Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, relations have been gradually restored, and today, Israel is recognised by 44 of Africa’s 55 states. The latest on the list is Chad. Israel opened an embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2019, bringing the total of current Israeli embassies in Africa to 13.

Two African countries are parties to the Abraham Accords signed in the dying days of the Donald Trump administration in 2020 – Morocco and Sudan. Civil strife in Sudan has meant that not much progress has been made on that front, but Israel-Morocco relations are booming after years of clandestine co-operation. In May 2022, the countries signed 13 memoranda of understanding across a range of economic sectors. Two-way tourism is flourishing, with 200 000 Israeli visitors expected in Morocco this year, a fourfold increase from before the accords. There are 10 direct flights per week. Israel’s i24 satellite television channel is opening bureaux in Rabat and Casablanca. Morocco is holding off on opening an embassy in Israel until its controversial occupation of Western Sahara is recognised. However, this relationship illustrates just what can happen with a bit of imagination and political will.

The Abraham Accords have lost steam with the departure from power of Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, however. More countries were said to be on the verge of joining – most notably Saudi Arabia – but this hasn’t materialised in the Biden administration. Nevertheless, Israel was able to host a successful Negev Summit in March this year, with foreign ministers and senior officials from six Muslim states that recognise Israel – Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Israel has just signed a wide-ranging free trade agreement with the UAE, which is expected to generate $3 billion (R46.3 billion) in three years’ time. So, Israel is focused on deepening existing relations rather than broadening the accords to other states for now.

As an indicator of growing support in Africa, last year, Israel was granted observer status at the African Union (AU). It had had this access before the OAU transformed into the AU in 2002, but it was then revoked under the insistence of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. When states like South Africa, Namibia, and Algeria raised objections this time, a final decision was deferred until February 2023 at the next AU summit, with a multi-state committee investigating the issue.

Africa is a house divided; the continent has been split down the middle by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Half of the countries have condemned the invasion at the United Nations General Assembly, and the other half have abstained or absented themselves from voting. Israel may be able to build on these divisions as it seeks to shore up African diplomatic support and chip away at the erstwhile reflexive anti-Israel sentiment in the African bloc.

As important as the Paris conference was, it’s no substitute for a heads-of-state meeting between Israel and Africa. Plans were well advanced to hold such a summit in Lomé, Togo, in 2017, but it was postponed indefinitely due to a combination of unrest in Togo and pressure from countries like Algeria, South Africa, and the Palestinians to scupper the summit.

With new pragmatism on display, relations with Israel are increasingly based on interests not ideology. African countries are showing, more and more, that they can hold strong views on the Palestinian issue, but still trade and engage with Israel in a constructive and mutually beneficial manner. South Africa should be taking notes.

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.

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